For Canadian-American Kristin Clay, cost was a significant factor when she chose Aalborg University in Denmark for a master's degree in culture, communication and globalization after completing her bachelor’s degree at Palm Beach Atlantic University in Florida.
“I ... felt like I couldn't afford to [study] in the States,” she told VOA. Her degree in Denmark cost her around $3,000 per semester, she said.
The average cost of tuition and fees at a U.S. college or university is around $25,000 a year, while more exclusive schools charge up to $70,000 in annual tuition and fees. A degree from one of those schools might garner a graduate better opportunities and income over time.
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The higher education industry in the U.S. faced documented evidence of daunting competition from other countries in 2018 that offer lower tuition, immigration pathways and less controversy for international students.
International student enrollment at American universities has leveled for the second academic year while it is gaining in other countries like the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, according to the Institute for International Education, which releases an annual report about the state of higher education in the U.S.
Colleges and universities in the U.S. must take more seriously the high cost of American higher education for all students, domestic and international, said Esther Brimmer, CEO of NAFSA: Association of International Educators.
“This is a larger question about how the United States makes higher education available for everybody, for Americans, as well as for international students and scholars,” she said.
“And so continued efforts to try to enhance affordability to try to enhance access to try to find additional ways to help students pay for their higher education are really important issues that we as a nation have to address.”
The U.S. remains the top destination in the world for more than 1 million visiting students, who bring $42 billion and 450,000 jobs to the U.S. economy, according to the State Department.
But U.S. higher education costs are far higher than those in competing countries.
In the Netherlands, annual tuition fees for a degree program are around 1,900 euros for European Union students and 6,000 euros for non-EU students, depending on the institution, according to topuniversities.com.
Additionally, grant money is available to non-EU students. The University of Amsterdam offers “excellence” scholarships for 25,000 euros that covers tuition, fees and living expenses.
“Students will be selected on the basis of academic excellence, ambition and relevance for a student’s future career.”
And in Germany, non-EU students will pay around $3,500 per year.
And in addition to low tuition costs, universities in Germany and other countries such as Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands boast various programs all taught in English. In Canada, pathways to immigration are less restrictive and less contentious than in the U.S.
“In Germany the tuition is absolutely, like dirt cheap. It's cheaper than in India,” said Akshay Chaturvedi, founder and CEO of Leverage, an Indian organization that helps students find the right degree program for them.
Leverage has helped over 1,500 Indian students pursue higher education at universities outside of India. Chaturvedi noted that in the last ten years, graduate programs in Europe and China have heavily increased marketing programs to students which, unlike American programs, do not require work experience.
The work experience required by American MBA programs often has to be specific to American businesses - and most international students have not had the opportunity to work for an American company before studying there.
“Europe, very, very carefully has over the last couple of years, filled the space for people in China and India of doing these programs where work experience is not required,” Chaturvedi said.
China has become a strong competitor to schools in the U.S.
“I applied to a couple of schools in Asia, a couple in Europe and two schools, one in the U.S. and one in Canada,” said Kashish Yadav, who worked for Costco before pursuing a master’s in business administration at the China Europe International Business School (CEIBS) in Shanghai.
“It had the lowest tuition fee … and since I wanted to work in retail, China is already studying new retail technology,” which Yadav said is not yet available to study in the United States or most universities in Europe.
International student enrollment has increased drastically in China in the past decade. In 2008, China set a goal to host half a million international students by 2020. But they hit their goal three years early, according to NAFSA.
US immigration concerns
Another reason Yadav cited was “uncertainty” with U.S. visa laws and anti-immigrant rhetoric.
President Donald Trump’s travel ban on seven countries -- five of them Muslim-majority -- poses practical challenges for students, educators said.
“For students who are currently enrolled, one of the concerns was that when the actual travel ban was announced, there were students who were outside the country who thought they might not be able to get back into the country,” Brimmer said.
According to NAFSA, many international students choose to stay in the U.S. instead of visit their home countries this summer, fearing they would not be able to re-enter.
Anti-immigrant rhetoric, too, has caused prospective students to consider other countries for higher education.
“Many international students and scholars may have been concerned seeing some of these activities, the rhetoric and the atmosphere of the past couple years, which has been critical of people from outside of the country has created an atmosphere that may be seen as very negative,” Brimmer said.
Chaturvedi said that many of his students, who are not affected by the travel ban, are still wary of regulations on international students, student visas, and work visas that the Trump administration has proposed.
“The perception that has been created is a little mad,” Chaturvedi said.
“The perception is going out that he's against Latinos, he's against Indians, he's against brown people, and because of all the shootings that has spooked people more than the actual rules,” he said. While statistically low, news of violence on college campuses spreads fast and wide to the international community.
But American institutions and universities are working to combat some of the factors that may tempt students to choose other universities.
“We should note the real efforts by people across the U.S. to welcome international students and scholars - people working at colleges and universities but also local communities that really value having people from around the world in their communities and have gone out of their way as host families to welcome international students and scholars,” Brimmer said.
Even if some students are wary of a changing rhetoric toward immigrants in the United States, they are not deterred from studying here.
Santiago Lopez Alvarez chose Rice University in Texas to pursue a graduate degree as a Fulbright scholar because they reached out to him personally. Had the university not contacted him directly, he said, he would not have considered Texas for graduate school.
“I had major hesitations,” he told VOA during his orientation week at Rice.
“At first I thought that everybody down the street was going to have guns…I thought Texas was going to be very conservative,” he said.
“But I think it’s great that I ended up coming here because life teaches you that stereotypes and prejudice are always overturned,” he said, calling Houston an “oasis” of friendly and welcoming people.