ST. LOUIS — Fontbonne University is missing 40 students this fall. Drury University in Springfield, Missouri, is missing more than 20. A recent downturn in international student visas has hit hardest at Midwestern colleges, which rely on the foreign students for full tuition dollars and campus diversity.
The number of international college students studying in the U.S. dropped by 12% in the last three years, according to the New York-based nonprofit Institute of International Education. College administrators blame visa denials, increased competition from other countries, an anti-immigrant political climate and rising tuition costs, the group's survey found.
"When I came here in 2016, if we had a visa denial or two that felt like a lot," said Kevin Kropf, executive vice president of enrollment management at Drury. "This past year we are well over 20 visa denials for potential students."
The Drury library is decorated with the 94 flags of the home countries of its students. Four years ago, international students made up 12% of Drury's enrollment. They've fallen to under 10%, a big blow to the school of 1,500 undergraduates. No students from China or Saudi Arabia enrolled this fall, and "the political climate is a very big part of that," Kropf said.
Most students come to the U.S. on an F-1 visa, which allows them to stay through graduation in an accredited program. The state department issued 362,929 F-1 visas in 2018, down from a high of 644,233 in 2015.
China, which sends more students than any other country, issued a warning in June about the risks of studying in the U.S. amid rising visa denials, concerns about gun violence and ongoing trade tension between the two countries.
State Department officials said they're working to encourage more Chinese students to study in the U.S. The department recently sent a delegation to China to promote academic exchanges, and U.S. Ambassador Terry Branstad wrote an op-ed in a Chinese youth publication to appeal to potential students.
There are also fewer students coming from Saudi Arabia, where the government cut back its U.S. scholarship program in 2017 to keep more students home. Students from seven countries under the Trump administration's travel ban are automatically denied. About 250 international students, most from India, have been arrested this year in a sting operation involving a fake college set up in Michigan by the Department of Homeland Security.
International students, who generally pay higher tuition and are less likely to need financial aid, supported more than 458,000 jobs and contributed $45 billion to the U.S. economy in the 2018-2019 school year, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. The University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg reported losing $14 million in revenue and cutting faculty in 2018 after a sharp decline in incoming international students.
Aside from the financial boost, international students "add to the diversity of viewpoints and thought on campus," Kropf said.
Cecilia Jones, 21, a senior at Fontbonne, said her freshman roommate was from Ecuador. Jones said she worries about the decline in foreign enrollment.
"It's going to affect the environment if it's just kids from America," said Jones, now a senior.
Fontbonne's assistant director of international admissions said they've had to boost efforts in recent years to maintain a 10% international enrollment and follow the school's Catholic mission to serve its neighbors.
"How can we better communicate to students, parents, high school counselors, that this is still a welcoming place?" said Claire Sheehan, whose roommate as a Fontbonne undergraduate was from China. "It's made us reevaluate and rethink our strategy."
Applications from international students have stayed steady, but visa denials are up. There would have been 40 additional students enrolled this fall if their visas had been approved, said Jessica Lynn Hylton, Fontbonne's interim director of international affairs.
"When we follow up, they're not given an answer on why their visas were denied," Hylton said.
Fontbonne junior Noella Museka of the Democratic Republic of Congo said she thinks families have become more afraid to send their children to the U.S.
"I've had a pretty good experience," she said. "You don't really feel it when you're here. You're really comfortable."
Saleh Alqasoumi, 21, a freshman from Saudi Arabia, said he has experienced racism once since coming to the U.S., when a woman at a gas station recorded him with her phone for no apparent reason.
Otherwise he said he's felt welcome in the U.S. and at Fontbonne, which he chose because of its cybersecurity program.
"As a Muslim we're kind of rare here, (but) they respect other religions," he said.
The decline in international students is more likely to hurt smaller colleges that don't have the endowments of large private schools or the name recognition of state schools. But the state universities of Missouri and Illinois have not been immune to the trend.
In the 2015-2016 school year, the University of Missouri welcomed a record high of 2,990 international students. This fall the number dropped to 1,931, with the biggest loss among Chinese students.
The University of Illinois benefited from the Chinese student boom that started in 2000. By 2017, Illinois enrolled more Chinese students than any other U.S. college, with 3,300 undergraduates. Two years later, the total has fallen to around 3,000.
Admissions directors say they've started to look beyond China and India to maintain their international draw. This year, Brazil, Bangladesh and Nigeria had the largest increases in students coming to the U.S., according to the Institute of International Education. Sheehan, of Fontbonne's international relations team, traveled to South Korea and Vietnam in October to meet prospective students.
Some colleges are choosing to go where the students are. In November, Webster University became the first American college to open a campus in Uzbekistan with about 500 students. Webster also offers classes in Austria, China, Ghana, Greece, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Thailand.
A small school defying the trend is Greenville University in Illinois, about an hour northeast of St. Louis. Greenville doubled its international enrollment this fall to a record 100 students.
In promotional materials, dean of international affairs Geet Vanaik says her goal is to show the world's students why they belong at a small Christian school in rural Illinois.
Potential international students and families can set up video conferencing interviews and tours to "visit" the campus from afar. Once enrolled, Greenville offers a semester-long course in topics such as maintaining immigration status and overcoming culture shock. The school organizes shopping trips to global food markets and has even changed its cafeteria options to add international flavors, among other efforts.