Published by EGE News Saturday, December 2, 2017

International student numbers up at East Texas colleges

By Meredith Shamburger 
Nov. 27, 2017 at 12:09 a.m.

International studies officer Sarah Epling gives a group of LeTourneau University international students instructions for the Longview Newcomer Scavenger Hunt, on Wednesday August 16, 2017, at the Gregg County Courthouse. Officials at both Kilgore College and LeTourneau  said they've seen an increase in international students over the past year. (Michael Cavazos/News-Journal Photo)

Longview-area institutions of higher learning appear to be bucking a recent trend at Texas public universities of declining numbers of international students.

While a recent survey found a sharp drop in enrollment of students from abroad, with applications falling by more than 10,000 at the state's public universities, at least two area institutions are seeing no decline.

Officials at both Kilgore College and LeTourneau University said they've seen an increase in international students over the past year. That's good, not just for enrollment trends, but for the university community, said Estonia Graves, Kilgore College admissions and international specialist.

"The presence of international students at KC provides our American students with exposure to various cultures and ideas which enliven classroom discussions with their perspectives and experiences," she said. "This exposure also has practical value, especially since only a fraction of American college students study abroad. Sitting in a classroom with international students might be the only exchange that American students have with people from other countries and is a great way to develop skills critical for a globalized workforce."

Graves said Kilgore College has 136 international students this fall semester, up 33 percent from last fall. She attributed the growing number of international students to factors like quality education and a large word-of-mouth program.

"We are doing the things that have traditionally proven beneficial by promoting a supportive environment to students, providing quality customer service and one-on-one attention to ensure student success," she said. "Just like our American student population, international students want the most out of their investment."

From about 40 students as recently as five years ago, LeTourneau's international enrollment has grown to about 100 students this year. That's in part because of a focus on internationalization from President Dale Lunsford, according to Alan Clipperton, associate vice president for LeTourneau's Office of Global Initiatives.

"International education is always changing with the global economy and the nature of the workforce demand," Clipperton said. "Our numbers have fluctuated, but not drastically over the last five years."

The area trends diverge from the findings of a Houston Chronicle survey of public universities that found a sharp drop in international student enrollment, with applications falling by more than 10,000, based on recent data. About three-quarters of four-year public universities in Texas had declines in international student enrollment, the Chronicle survey found.

That includes places like Texas A&M University at Commerce, which had a 22 percent decline, and Lamar University, which had a 37 percent drop.

Such big-name schools as Texas A&M University and the University of Texas at Austin either saw no change or had slight increases, the Chronicle found.

The drop in enrollment at many Texas schools comes after years of steady growth, with international enrollment increasing to 45,609 in 2015 from 36,703 in 2013. Officials attribute the drop in enrollment to several factors, including anti-immigrant rhetoric from President Donald Trump and the global economy.

At Kilgore College, Graves noted one challenge some international students are facing: bureaucratic delays caused by understaffed federal agencies.

"One challenge is that State Department job vacancies seem to be delaying the issuance of student visas," she said.

Clipperton, too, highlighted several issues that can be at play for foreign students to study in the United States, such as changes in foreign government scholarship programs.

But he noted that U.S. education programs always have been able to attract top talent from around the world. So, too, has the U.S. immigration system's path for employment for foreign students who graduate from a U.S. institution.

"This path has not changed in recent years and has provided attractive future employment options particularly for international students graduating in high-demand STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) areas," he said. "However, some political uncertainty regarding these employment paths may impact international education in the U.S. in the future."