The Changing Nature of International Students

by Katie Sloan

The international student population is shifting, and the culprit is an obvious one: COVID. It’s a term we’re all tired of hearing, but the effects continue to play out, particularly on university campuses and in housing communities. The good news is not all of these changes are bad. 

This global shakeup has provided student housing operators with more data on which countries have the most students interested in studying abroad and how these students prefer to learn (and live). The pandemic has also shed light on the policies of other countries that have prevented their youth from studying abroad, resulting in students from other countries taking their place. 

A Shifting Demographic

First things first. As with domestic students, the student housing industry is experiencing very strong post-COVID demand from the international cohort.

The population of international students globally is forecasted to increase to 8 million by 2030. This is 3 million more students than in 2019, notes Robin Moorcroft, transaction director for Global Student Accommodation. 

“We expect to see the number of international students in the U.S. and across our global portfolio continue to grow,” Moorcroft says. “These numbers demonstrate the increasing demand and pressure on supply across markets.” 

One of those markets is the U.S., though Australia, the United Kingdom and Canada also draw a large international student following. 

“International students are the lifeblood of most Canadian student housing properties,” says Henry Morton, president of Toronto-based Campus Suites. “At some of them we have as many as 70 percent of our residents being international, while others are in the 55 percent range. We used to be roughly 50/50, but that has tilted more to international since the pandemic.”

Connor Patterson, COO at Ontario-based Varsity Communities, notes that all his Canadian communities experienced a slight decrease in international students during the pandemic, but they’ve since rebounded and/or surpassed pre-pandemic levels. Some have done even better than that. 

“In urban markets like Toronto we are seeing a 25 percent increase in international student applications for 2023 pre-leasing compared to 2022 pre-leasing,” he says. “Canada has aggressive international student enrollment targets, and we intend to continue to see strong growth in this student demographic.”

The country’s enrollment initiatives are working. Canada’s international student population has tripled in the past decade, swelling to 642,000 strong, per Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada data. 

Jason Schwartz, managing principal and co-head of real estate equity at Chicago-based Blue Vista, has seen healthy occupancy at his company’s properties as well, though it’s not necessarily due to international students. 

“Overall, the number of international students at our properties is slightly lower than it was pre-pandemic, but it’s not a dramatic difference across our portfolio,” he says. “Ultimately, the slight decline has been more than made up for by an increase in domestic students at our properties.”

Schwartz notes the company has seen a slight decline from students in all countries post pandemic, but the biggest drop has come from China — a trend that was experienced across the board. And borders.

“The predominant country of origin has historically been China,” Patterson adds. “However, we expect the number of Chinese international students to decrease as more Chinese students choose to be educated domestically in China, rather than abroad.”

The Chinese student population seems to be fading in the U.S. and Canada as China enhances its educational offerings and maintains strict COVID guidelines that make it difficult for students to travel abroad. As of September, more than 70 Chinese cities still had full or partial lockdown orders.  

Thankfully, other countries have stepped in to take China’s place. About 10 percent of Varsity Communities’ international student population comes from India — a number Patterson believes will double in the next five years. Morton has also seen a “dramatic increase” in international students from countries other than China.  

“We have fewer Chinese students now, but more from India and Nigeria, in particular,” Morton says. “The funny thing about our residents is that we have to ask them a few times about their country of origin. When you ask a second-year student where ‘they’re from,’ they say Canada as they often feel they’re already headed toward residency as they finish their schooling.”

That may be the goal of every student housing operator targeting an international population: make foreign born students feel so at home and welcomed in your country and community that the answer to such a simple question suddenly isn’t so straight forward.

International Appeal

The best way to make a student feel at home in your housing community is, of course, to remind them of home. After all, common ground equals comfort for a lot of these students, especially if they don’t speak the language of their chosen country.

“The biggest push we have is to ensure that we have international language community assistants who can speak directly to the prospective residents in their native language,” Morton says. “It has been, by far, the most important vehicle we have at our disposal — getting people comfortable.”

That extends to the digital world as well. Patterson notes Varsity Communities’ international student prospects typically spend 40 percent more time researching communities online when compared to domestic students. That makes websites and social media two crucial marketing aspects. 

Morton adds that Campus Suites designs its websites for international translations. It also invests in shadow websites targeted toward specific demographics. In some instances, Campus Suites will even hire country specific marketing firms, which it has done in the past for China.

Tours are another important area for international students who can’t always visit in person before deciding where to live. 

“International students are comfortable touring properties virtually, but would like both a guided virtual tour, which is live with a leasing consultant, and a pre-recorded tour so they can re-watch it,” Schwartz says. “International students also trust written interaction, so they can refer back to it if needed.”

With these factors in mind, Blue Vista launched an international ambassador program at Rittenhouse Station near the University of Delaware in Newark, Delaware. 

“We offered virtual tours during hours that overcame the time differences between the locations,” Schwartz explains. “We also had ambassadors that were fluent in Mandarin or the language the international students spoke, which allowed us to enhance our communication, answer questions and provide additional support throughout the leasing process. Ultimately, this program brought in over 100 leases to the property.”

Another strategy to make international students feel at home is to make sure they’re represented within your staff.

A student from Ghana, for example, moved into the Quad, Campus Suites’ 812-bed community at York University in Toronto, in January 2021. After attending all the digital resident life events during the pandemic (he was unable to move in during the fall semester due to COVID), he applied for a position within the community that April. 

“He has been with us since then as a community advisor,” Morton says. “He has brought in great ideas for events and social media posts. His attitude toward the Quad is really great, and he has a sense of community. We strive to ensure our overall staff is reflective of our resident population. We also embrace the different holidays and make sure that our residents are aware of what their inclusion means to us, as a community and country.”

Campus Suites hosts “Taste of” events that feature cuisine from around the world. Student groups are given a budget to purchase ingredients and make country specific dishes in the community kitchens. Residents are then given “passports” that can be stamped as they try each country’s fare.

In Country, On Campus

Whether or not to get their real passports stamped was a question many current and would be international students have had over the past few years. Some had to decide if they should go home or stay in their study abroad country, while others tried to determine if it was worth it to study internationally with new online and hybrid learning models.

The students soon spoke, and they were resoundingly in favor of the in-person experience. This applied to both the classroom and their living situations.

“Our international students seek private rooms, quiet study spaces and reading areas, as well as places to have fun and enjoy the company of other students,” says Rui Barros, global COO at Yugo, a global student housing brand based in Denver. “Distance learning turned out to be a poor substitute for the sociable, in person learning experience. For many international students, building foreign language skills is part of their study plan abroad, and that can only really be achieved by living and studying in the chosen country. Students still desire the ‘on campus’ experience from a learning perspective.”

Even the hybrid approach has fallen flat for many.

“While hybrid learning has emerged from the pandemic, our research shows that the broader student experience is important for our customers, whose preference is for in-person learning,” Moorcroft says. “We’ve seen this demonstrated in the number of students who chose to stay in their student accommodation during the pandemic and the rebound in occupancy levels across our living spaces post pandemic.”

These preferences also attest to the students’ priorities, which often include remaining in their study abroad country. 

“During the pandemic, a huge percentage of our international students stayed as they really had nowhere else to go and were concerned that if they went home that they would not be allowed back in,” Morton says.

The issue of admittance has become a significant one, he further notes. 

“Unfortunately, Canada has had a country-wide problem with visa processing and many students have been unable to get into the country,” Morton continues. “This was never a problem, but the pandemic has slowed down many of these services — sometimes to a crawl.  We really won’t know the final impact of some of this until 2023.”

Morton worries this could affect Canada’s international student population. The country is considered a “safe haven,” he explains, offering direct paths to citizenship, which appeals to international students. Canada also has lofty goals of expanding its global student base, making this visa issue all the more pressing. 

“The country is targeting 1 million student visas by the end of the decade, which is almost 10 times as many international student visas per capita compared to the United States,” Patterson says. “Operators need to continue to invest in resources and tools to serve international students as they become an increasingly important demographic in the Canadian market.”

If the U.S. and Canada are to remain at the top of the list for international students, housing operators in both countries will need to continue courting a diverse population. That starts with providing the familiarity foreign born students need, paired with an experience they can’t attain at home.

Nellie Day

This article was originally published in the November/December 2023 issue of Student Housing Business magazine. 

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