Maine Schools Say Toxic Political Climate Is Driving Away International Students

Sep 25, 2017
Originally published on September 25, 2017 5:39 pm

Several Maine high schools say they’ve never had such a hard time finding students from abroad to help fill out their classrooms.

Administrators say news about violent political protests, international travel bans and federal immigration crackdowns — combined with increased competition for students and raising costs — is making it more difficult to find students in their go-to recruitment locales.

“We’re just not sifting through a pile of applications like we have in the past,” said Mel MacKay, head of school at John Bapst. “Normally we have a waiting list.”

Stearns High School in Millinocket typically takes in between 10 and 12 international students each year. When school started this month, it had just two.

The shortage emerged suddenly this year, according to Wade Merritt, president of the Maine International Trade Center. MITC runs StudyMaine, an advocacy organization that represents a consortium of Maine high schools and colleges with international programs. It’s become such an issue of concern, that the MITC has scheduled an Oct. 17 workshop to discuss the reasons behind the shortage and brainstorm solutions.

“We’ll be talking about how to approach this new reality,” Merritt said.

Maine high schools have welcomed international exchange students for decades, but in the mid-1990s, some started bringing in more foreign students as a way of countering demographic changes. As the state’s population aged and families filtered out of rural areas, schools noticed sagging headcounts and started to look overseas to bolster enrollment and bring in a new revenue stream of tuition-paying students.

That trend picked up as Maine entered a new millennium in which the aging trend continued, and families were forced out of rural areas due to employment and economic struggles.

The largest portion of Maine’s international students hail from China, where families place a high value on western models of education and view a year or two in a U.S. high school as an avenue to an American university. Maine also draws students from other Asian nations, across Europe, South and Central America, Australia and elsewhere.

Until recently, it was pretty easy to find those students by making an occasional trip overseas to recruitment fairs or building relationships with sister schools abroad. School administrators point to a number of factors that they believe are contributing to the shortage, but differ on which hindrances are having the greatest effect.

Clint Williams, dean of admissions for Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield, called it a “perfect storm” of challenges that are making the pool of potential international students harder to draw from.

There’s growing competition not only in Maine, but also across the country and abroad for these students, he said. More private and public schools are stepping into the game to grow or sustain their schools. Meanwhile, Canadian, United Kingdom and Australian schools are beginning to build vibrant international programs of their own in an attempt to draw students from markets that U.S. schools have long looked to for students.

China is even building more schools based on western education models, featuring a more diverse set of education opportunities and less intense focus on testing in an effort to keep more students in the country, Williams said.

“It’s pretty evident that town academies and schools like MCI around the nation are working harder to enroll similar numbers as last year or the year before,” he said.

Several such students, or their parents, changed their mind about coming to her school this year after initially expressing interest, said Lisa Dalrymple, who directs the international program at Mt. Blue High School in Farmington.

When Dalrymple asked why, some families said they were worried about bullying and referenced seeing news about protests, racial unrest, intense political division, and “disrespect for authority,” such as police, on their televisions. That news has not played well overseas.

For others, there’s uncertainty surrounding U.S. immigration policies. Some families, seeing news of travel bans and immigration crackdowns, didn’t want to commit to sending their students to the U.S. fearing that the nation’s student visa regulations might change, hindering their ability to come to school. Mackay said there’s a “perception overseas that the U.S. is not as friendly to foreigners as once before.”

Frank Boynton, superintendent of the Millinocket School Department, said other families fear the risk of terrorism and generally believe the outside world isn’t as safe as it used to be.

There are also economic reasons. The U.S. dollar is strong, making it more expensive for many families to send their children to the states for an education, which Dalrymple said has been another common complaint from prospective sending families.

MacKay said that in spite of the shortage of applications this year, John Bapst managed to start its school year with a fully enrolled international program of about 70 students, with the largest groups representing China, Vietnam and South Korea. It took more recruitment fair visits and a farther reach to get to that number than it ever has before. If more families decide not to send their students abroad, filling the rolls could become more difficult in the future.

It’s unclear just how significant this trend is, or if it will worsen. No group keeps an exact year-by-year account of how many international students are in Maine at a given time. The Institute of International Education tracks international student enrollment trends, but its data runs a year or two behind.

“We’ll see a better picture of it a year or even two years later,” Merritt said. “We are hoping that the trends will reverse and the U.S. — especially Maine — will continue to be a destination for international students.”

A few schools seem to be bucking the trend. Saco’s Thornton Academy, home to one of the state’s largest international programs, didn’t notice any notable drop in international applications for the current school year, according to Katie Nicketakis, the school’s associate marketing director.

In fact, their program grew. The school recently completed another dormitory building, allowing it to bring its total international population to around 200, which accounts for about 12 percent of its 1,700 student headcount in grades 6-12.

“Our situation hasn’t changed, which we’re feeling fortunate about,” Nicketakis said. Even so, she said, Thornton is taking note of the struggles of other schools and keeping a close eye on the trend.

Maine’s public schools, which typically have smaller international populations than their private counterparts, are concerned about how they’ll keep their programs afloat in the midst of a shortage because private institutions have a major recruitment advantage. Town academies and private schools — such as Thornton, Bapst and MCI — can bring international students back for multiple years, while federal law limits public schools to just one year per international student. Spending several years at the same U.S. high school is an attractive option for teens from overseas looking to get acclimated to life in the states before college.

Boynton said he recognized early on that Stearns would fall well short of its usual 10 or 12 international students, and was able to adjust his budget accordingly. Now, he said he’ll have to start looking ahead to next year, and that some schools may need to spread their gaze to less traditional recruitment locales.

He said he’s been in touch with Maine’s congressional delegates and hopes they’ll take steps to change the one-year limit for international public school students, allowing them to become more competitive in recruitment.

This story appears through a media sharing agreement with Bangor Daily News.

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