Kansas universities have seen a significant drop in the enrollment of international students, and leaders there are taking action to see if they can boost those numbers.

At Wichita State University, which saw a decline of 587 international students from the 2014-2015 school year through 2017-2018, a new online program is making up some of the slack, according to Vince Altum, executive director of the office of international education.

"WSU started offering a lot of non-degree coursework that's very popular with our students that are overseas that do it online," he said, adding that although the university has seen a decrease in the number of international students studying on campus, students through the Workforce Education and Badge Program are increasing.

In fall 2018, Altum said, there were 421 students taking those professional development classes. The Badge program didn't start with a focus on international students.

"It was a way to start offering micro-credentials, and then the university said, 'Hey, why don't you see if any international students might be interested?' " Altum said.

They were, and the response was impressive.

Charles Taber, provost and executive vice president at Kansas State University, said he was hopeful regulatory changes at the state and federal level can continue to encourage international students to choose the U.S.

The Optional Practical Training program through the federal government offers students on an F-1 visa — the most common type of student visa — the chance to work for 12 months in the U.S. in their chosen field. Recently, Taber said, the government expanded the OPT to two years for students in STEM fields.

"That's a positive development," he said. "That really is a pathway where students can spend two years working in the U.S. after their degree and some of those students can find an opportunity that turns into a permanent (position)."

Offering international students a way to stay in the U.S. is one way to address some of the escalating workforce issues, he said. It also needs attention at the state level, Taber added.

"I think that states that invest in higher education and see a connection to workforce will also develop programs at their universities and fund programs at their universities that will attract talent, international talent," he said.

Taber noted that he testified last week at the higher education budget committee at the Kansas Statehouse, along with leaders from other Kansas schools.

"In some sense we're competitors, but more importantly we really have a common cause," Taber said. "The universities in Kansas have a common cause to make to advocate for increased support that will allow us to really draw the talent. It's not just international students. They are components of it, but the talent from across the country and retaining the Kansas talent so they don't find better opportunities out of state and leave."

Aaron Hurt, interim director of international programs and services office at Pittsburg State University, said his school experienced a drop in international students after a scholarship program with Saudi Arabia ended. It was a limited program to start with, and the school wanted to do something to make sure the experience on campus was multicultural.

Pitt State has started several new initiatives, including hiring an in-country recruiter in China and India. It has already had several applications come from that program, he said.

It also will be implementing new scholarship programs for international students in the fall.

Carol Solko-Olliff, director of international student services at Fort Hays State University, said she expects to see the situation in international education start to shift.

Once things turn around, it will be important to build back trust with the international community, she said.

"That's why I think it's important when the students come that their experience is positive so they can be ambassadors when they go back to talk about the experience they had," she said. "It's a people-to-people relationship. It shouldn't be government to government. While that has an influence, it's honestly the interpersonal."

Rachel Banks, NAFSA director for public policy, said changes need to occur for the U.S. to be competitive. NAFSA is a national organization focused on international students and education.

Visa challenges that bar students from studying here can often be attributed to immigration law that requires international students to demonstrate they have no intent to immigrate to the U.S.

"That can be a pretty big hurdle for some students to climb over," she said. "It gives the consul officers great leeway to deny an applicant under the auspice of 'I don't believe you have no intention to immigrate.' We have been advocating to change it because of the reality of 21st century academic mobility. Competitor countries that are seeking to attract talent from all over the world, and specifically Canada and Australia, have specific paths for international students to be able to immigrate and become citizens."

The need is to tackle the issue of all immigration policies, Banks said.

"We are welcoming a common-sense immigration policy," she said. "It hinders our competitive edge in the world. In 2016, all six of the U.S. winners of Nobel prizes in the sciences and economic sciences were immigrants."