Hawaii is going against a national trend when it comes to how many international students roam its campuses, and it’s costing the state money.

While the foreign student population went up 45 percent around the country during the last five years, Hawaii saw its international student body shrink by 26 percent, according to a recent report from the City and County of Honolulu.

As a result, the state lost out on $302 million in potential revenue that would normally be generated through tuition and living expenses.

The report noted that Hawaii doesn’t have as much access to recruitment agencies as mainland colleges do, since the islands are relatively secluded, hindering representation at college fairs. Hawaii is number 37 out of the 50 states.

Todd Simmons, vice president of marketing and communications at Hawaii Pacific University, says there’s more to it than that. “Part of this is just an outgrowth of competition in the marketplace,” he explained.

“It renews for all of us in Hawaii that this is a very competitive space, and while Hawaii is a big draw, we have to be very focused on telling our story from an academic standpoint, helping students understand the quality and potential of a degree from a Hawaii campus.”

The presence of these students is clearly important to the state. More than $100 million was added to Hawaii’s economy from nearly 5,000 international students in 2013, a combination of their tuition and living expenses, according to the newly released Open Doors study from the Institute of International Education.

Nationally, the number of international students studying in the U.S. grew by 7 percent since last year and is at a record high: 819,644 foreign students brought in an estimated $24 billion to the U.S. economy.

Of the international students in Hawaii this year, most were at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, which had 1,303 students. Brigham Young University Hawaii had 1,046; Hawaii Pacific University, 937; Kapiolani Community College, 702; and UH Hilo, 182.

The leading country of origin of international students nationwide is China, accounting for 29 percent, which is a 21 percent increase over 2012. Hawaii bucked that trend as well; Chinese student numbers have changed relatively little, accounting for 7.5 percent of international students. Most international students in Hawaii come from Japan.

Origin of Hawaii international students:

  • Japan – 20.9 percent
  • South Korea – 13.7 percent
  • China – 7.5 percent
  • Norway – 4.7 percent
  • Taiwan – 4.1 percent

Origin of international students nationwide:

  • China – 29 percent
  • India – 12 percent
  • South Korea – 9 percent
  • Saudi Arabia – 5 percent
  • Canada/Taiwan – 3 percent

Attracting Students to the Islands

Simmons says that HPU has been working to reverse the downward trend, noting that the college has seen an increase this year in the number of international students seeking a new degree. Last fall semester it had 30 such students, while this semester HPU has 49.

“We made changes in the way that we distribute financial aid,” said Simmons. “Its been helpful to those students and to others, and helped us realize gains in areas that are important.”

As for how the university attracts students, Simmons noted the success of alumni. Republic of the Marshall Islands President Christopher Loeak, Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, and U.S. Diplomat Andrew Abordonado play a part because they show what graduates have gone on to accomplish with their degrees.

“We like to tell prospective students that when you study at HPU, you’re going to come into contact with different cultures, with individuals of different backgrounds and beliefs, and the experience here will prepare you for success in the workplace in ways that few other places can,” Simmons added.

Study Hawaii, a not-for-profit consortium that’s purpose is to attract international students to study here, is trying to tackle the problem. Joel Weaver is the vice president, and also the University of Hawaii English Language Program director. The consortium is trying to raise awareness of the education institutions in Hawaii, he said.

“The challenge we have is that Hawaii has been very effectively marketed as a tourist destination, which it is, but unfortunately people don’t take it seriously as a study destination,” he said.

Study Hawaii is made up of not only universities and community colleges in Hawaii, including those in the UH system, HPU and Chaminade, but K-12 and ESL schools as well, like St. Andrews Priory and ELS Language Centers Honolulu.

Simmons is also involved in the organization. “The economic impact of those students coming here to study is not small. By joining forces in marketing efforts and other ways, we have an opportunity to change impressions about what it means to study in Hawaii,” he said.

The group plans to approach the Legislature in the next session, working with the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, to seek help with funding for marketing and outreach activities, he said.

Weaver noted the importance of marketing materials. “What we’re hoping to do now is to really do a multi-pronged effort to build the brand of Hawaii as a study destination. We’re developing a fully resourced website in multiple languages, and trying to be represented at student and agent fairs, especially in Asia,” he said.

Economic Importance

According to the National Association of Foreign Student Advisers (NAFSA), around 313,000 jobs are created or sustained as a direct result of international students spending money and paying tuition while they are in the U.S. The numbers show that three jobs are added for every seven students.

NAFSA’s report found the following in Hawaii in 2013:

  • Contribution from Tuition and Fees to State Economy: $62,799,000
  • Contribution from Living Expenses: $75,701,000
  • Total Contribution by Foreign Students: $138,500,000
  • Less U.S. Support of $31,486,000:
  • Net Contribution to State Economy by Foreign Students and their Families: $108,577,000

Net Jobs Created/Supported by Foreign Students and their Families:

  • Jobs Directly Created/Supported: 520
  • Jobs Indirectly Created/Supported: 508
  • Net Jobs Created/Supported in the State Economy: 1,027

Locally, one international student spends $24,089 per year; two international students create 1 local job; and one international student generates $3,517 in State tax revenues per year.

By capitalizing on the lush beauty of the state, education institutions hope to bring more students over.

“Why not study some place where you’d love to live?” said Weaver. “Often people know about Hawaii, but they aren’t even thinking in the realm of study. Yes, we live in a beautiful place, it’s wonderful and multi-ethnic, but why not come to a place that has wonderful education as well?”

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