Just a few years ago, American colleges and universities had record-high numbers of students attending from other countries. But the population of international students in the United States has been plummeting for at least two years now. There are currently a million foreign students at American colleges, but studies show new enrollments dropping by more than 5% a year.

American colleges are growing more expensive, universities in other countries are getting more competitive, and the United States’ political situation is challenging. But one of the biggest problems doesn’t usually make the headlines: More and more students are having trouble getting visas.

The problems with visas

America’s government is issuing visas more slowly. A fall 2018 study by the Institute of International Education reported that 83 percent of colleges and universities had trouble getting their students’ visas issued on time.

LaShae Grottis, director of North Lake College’s International Center, points out that when the government approves visas at the last minute, students pay the price. In some cases, North Lake students have had just days to pack their bags, buy plane tickets, arrive in the United States, and find a place to live.

Grottis says that visa approvals have also become more arbitrary in recent years.

“We had at least three or four cases of siblings who were here, and their other siblings applied and had their visas denied,” Grottis says. The US government doesn’t have to explain why a visa is denied, so those families still don’t know why one brother or sister was allowed to enter America, but the other wasn’t.

“There seems to not be a consistency in any of it,” Grottis says.

Costs, competition, and other reasons why

New policies and procedures have also contributed to some international students being turned away. For example, the U.S. government created a rule requiring colleges and universities to issue important paperwork to future students directly, usually through the mail. But some countries don’t have reliable mail services, which means that students in those countries may never be able to complete their applications.

American customs officers are also less likely to give students second chances if they’ve submitted the wrong paperwork or made a mistake.

“There used to be a time where [students] could appeal or come back with more documents,” Grottis says. “Now they’re denied and that’s it.”

The growing perception that foreigners are not welcome in America is another problem — and so is the rapidly rising cost of college tuition. Between 2012 and 2016, tuition costs for international students rose by an average of 25%.

College students also have more options from universities in other countries. The Wall Street Journal reports that Chinese universities, especially, are drawing more students.

And other countries’ domestic situations are factors too. Conflicts, regime changes, financial crashes, and natural disasters can all keep students out of college. Brazil and Saudi Arabia recently cut scholarships that helped their students study in America. A 2015 earthquake in Nepal left many people impoverished or homeless, and unable to attend university.

In 2017 and 2018, Cameroon’s government shut down the internet in several regions to suppress political dissent – with the unfortunate side effect of blocking students in Cameroon from applying to schools. Sudan, Congo, Iran, Zimbabwe, Myanmar and even India have also suppressed web access recently.

Solutions to ease the complications

While students may face ever growing obstacles in applying to U.S. colleges and universities, there are still some concrete steps that can be taken to help make the application go as smoothly as possible.

Students and their families should:

  • Plan and apply as early as possible to college and universities (this includes filing for your visa and any available financial assistance)
  • Create backup plans in the event things don’t go as planned
  • Carefully save physical copies of financial records and other required documents
  • Carefully check all required paperwork prior to submission
  • Speak with a trained international student advisor at the college or university you are interested in attending

If you’re interested in applying to an American college, talk to a trained international advisor at a college or university. Find out more by talking to experienced international admissions advisors at North Lake College.