By the end of his ninth-grade year, Harry Siraj knew he wanted to leave his hometown of Calicut, India, to pursue a higher education and become a lawyer.
Despite never even hearing of Iowa before he began his international college search, Siraj applied and enrolled at the University of Iowa because of its reputation as a premiere law and writing school and the scholarship funds he would receive. Before he even accepted, the university mailed him a Hawkeyes T-shirt from 9,000 miles away.
While the sophomore said he did his own research rather than attend university fairs and the like when finding a college, he knew institutions and third-party organizations would visit other schools to recruit students. Representatives would encourage students to study abroad in disciplines like business and STEM fields.
Siraj said he has friends who are studying in different areas of the U.S., Australia and the United Kingdom.
“India is a big country and it’s got a strong economy, but … countries like the U.S., the job opportunities are just, there are more,” Siraj said. “And there’s more room to gain experience.”
Many students decide to leave home for school in order to experience different environments and put roots down in a place that may have more career opportunities. The U.S. can be seen as a gold standard for receiving an education, Siraj said, and studying abroad in general is considered a big deal. With travel open once again after the pandemic and fewer issues with student visas, Siraj is part of a growing population of students leaving their home countries for school.
After almost a decade of declining numbers of international students coming to Iowa’s public universities, more students are again starting to pick Iowa and the U.S. as a whole as in-person recruitment picks up.
All three of the regents universities saw increases in international student enrollment for the first time in years, according to the Iowa Board of Regents Fall 2023 Enrollment Report. Across the universities, international student enrollment increased by 352 students, led by people coming from India as numbers of Chinese students continue to decline.
“I think the political environment for a few years there was a little detrimental to numbers, not only at UNI but all around the U.S., and then we hit COVID and that really finished us off there as far as seeing our numbers decline,” University of Northern Iowa Director of International Recruitment and Admissions Kristi Marchesani said. “But we are happy that we’re back heading in the right direction.”
The University of Northern Iowa had the largest jump in international student enrollment with a 20.7% increase. Iowa State University’s international enrollment increased by 11.3%, and the University of Iowa saw the smallest increase at 3.2%.
Part of this increase is due to university recruiters once again being able to travel to other countries and meet prospective students, Marchesani said, which goes a long way in convincing them and their families that UNI would be a good choice. The networking and relationship building that comes with in-person meetings is helpful in creating partnerships and put UNI on the global map, and other colleges have similar practices.
“I see them sometimes overseas, we’re recruiting (from) some of the same regions,” Marchesani said. “So we definitely know that we’re all out there trying to spread the good word about the state of Iowa.”
The decline in students coming from China is due in part to smaller population increases and more internal investment in higher education infrastructure, University of Iowa Associate Provost and Dean of International Programs Russell Ganim said. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated this, but he said China and India are still tied for the most-represented foreign countries at the university.
In response to this, the UI started broadening its recruitment efforts to Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and the Middle East, Ganim said. With the increase in international enrollment and 44 countries represented in the university’s Class of 2027, Ganim said their efforts are starting to bear fruit.
The University of Iowa also showcases its strong research infrastructure and status as an Research-1 university to help recruit graduate and professional students, Ganim said. These students make up about two-thirds of international students on campus. According to the university’s 2023 international programs report, 2,063 students from 110 foreign countries and territories studied or conducted post-graduate research at the UI in fall 2023.
“We are in the process of trying to recruit for more countries, and I think that that approach has paid off,” Ganim said.
When travel was difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic, Marchesani said the university did what it could online to keep promoting UNI with webinars, virtual campus visits and connecting with potential students through social media. Online efforts have since slowed down some as travel has picked back up.
The University of Iowa implemented a similar strategy, holding virtual recruitment sessions and workshops in countries including China, India, Nigeria, Kenya and the United Arab Emirates.
Once travel restrictions were lifted, Ganim said the university sent representatives to recruitment fairs and schools in those countries to recruit current students and establish relationships with counselors. These would hopefully turn into a pipeline for future international interest.
Iowa university enrollment hikes are reflected nationally, according to the Open Doors 2023 Report on International Educational Exchange, an annual report sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. In the 2022-2023 academic year, a total of about 858,000 international students were enrolled at U.S. colleges and universities, an increase of almost 100,000 students from last year.
This is the highest number of international students the U.S. has housed since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and only the second year of increased enrollment since numbers started declining after the 2016-2017 academic year. China and India are the top two countries for students studying in the U.S., each with more than 250,000 students.
Siraj said when preparing to study abroad during the COVID-19 pandemic, which was at its height during his last two years of high school, he was less worried about enrolling than about travel, as India was one country where travel to the U.S. was restricted. Once that was lifted, his concerns shifted to getting his student visa approved alongside the larger number of international students trying to do the same. In the end, he had no issues.
“Because of the pandemic, a lot of the students couldn’t travel to the U.S., they had to stay back home, so they didn’t have their visa stamp,” Siraj said. “So all those students decided to enroll the next year. So when I applied, there were like nearly double the amount of students they had the previous year because they all got backlogged because of the pandemic.”
Student visa approvals had slowed down in the past few years, Ganim said, but processing them seems to have sped up again, making him more optimistic about the future of international recruitment.
Marchesani said UNI has seen big leaps in the number of applicants hailing from African countries, as well as increases from India and somewhat of a resurgence from China. UNI and its peer institutions sometimes fall behind the national enrollment trends, which may be a reason why Iowa’s universities saw increases this fall rather than last.
Marchesani said it looks like the U.S. is once again becoming a top destination for international students.
However, even with these increases in international student enrollment, Marchesani said U.S. universities still need to pay attention to the competition. Countries such as Australia and Canada are both very popular countries to receive an international education, and universities in Germany and China are starting to increase their global recruitment efforts.
“I’m optimistic that we are going to continue to see a flow of interest, but I also think we need to continue to advocate for policies that make sure that it allows international students to be able to get here and pursue their studies here in the U.S.,” Marchesani said.
It’s important that American policies and people ensure students across the world are able to apply for and attend universities without unnecessary difficulties or feeling unwelcome, Marchesani said. That can make college campuses and educations better for domestic students, as well as financially benefit the universities themselves because international students pay out-of-state tuition.
Ganim said the University of Iowa wants its campus to “look like the world,” so students, staff and faculty can benefit from the strong academic and cultural environment that comes with interacting with people from different backgrounds.
“A lot of careers that our students are going into, are going to require that they have an understanding of the global economy or how to work in an intercultural type of environment,” Marchesani said. “So we must prepare them in a lot of ways by making sure that we have those types of classroom discussions and chances for interaction with international students.”
Siraj, who is studying political science on the pre-law track, said he planned on staying in Iowa for two years before transferring to a different school but he fell in love with the University of Iowa and Iowa City soon after he arrived.
One thing universities could do to improve their recruiting of international students is to showcase their amenities beyond just college rankings and academics, he said, like student life and extracurriculars. One concern his family had before Siraj moved here was about campus life and whether he would be supported while living away from his siblings, who live in Canada, and his parents. Knowing more about the dorms, dining and other services might have alleviated some worries, he said.
“I’m going to graduate from here and stay as long as I can because it’s actually a great place, and I feel like with international students, their families will be more comfortable sending their children to these universities if they know that their living conditions are up to the mark as well,” Siraj said. “It’s not just the academic programs that are attractive, but the daily living.”