Does uncertainty in Latin America mean opportunity for international student recruitment?

Topical World Picture of Latin America

by Tracy Beavers and Swaraj Nandan

This year’s international student recruitment cycle is fraught with uncertainty, as many universities weigh the current U.S. administration’s intentions and the effects of recent legislation, such as the travel ban and H1-B visa changes. While political instability is a new feeling to many Americans, the story is much different in other areas of the world, particularly Latin America. Times are challenging there, and many parents are looking for opportunities to send their children abroad to pursue education in a more reliable environment. And, the U.S. and its higher education institutions still have a lot to offer – including more social and economic stability.

Spotlight on: Brazil

Brazil’s economy has been in dire straits for the last three years. Hosting the 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympic Games required significant investment in infrastructure and put a strain on an already flagging economy. In the last two years, the country’s economy has contracted by 7.4%, making this Brazil’s deepest recession in history. Unfortunately this year has continued the trend of an uncertain economy with the weakening of the Brazilian Real.

At the same time, Brazil has been struggling with huge political scandals, first resulting in the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff last year and continuing with arrests of high-ranking government officials. Now, Brazil’s current president has come under fire for allegedly approving hush money for a convicted former lawmaker. Protests have broken out across the country in response, with many calling for President Temer’s resignation.

Life in Brazil is difficult and uncertain right now. While some experts remain hopeful that the country will post positive economic growth by the end of the year, overall the economy is still struggling. Politically, the situation is even worse – with the highest-ranking officials embroiled in serious scandal. Corruption is a huge issue at every level of Brazil’s government right now, and there’s no end in sight.

Spotlight on: Colombia

Colombia has a long history of political violence throughout the last 10 years, between left-wing insurgents known as the Farc and the ELN (National Liberation Army) and right-wing paramilitaries such as the AUC – the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia. While peace was officially signed at the end of 2016, the country faces a long road of demobilizing the military, removing landmines and transitioning soldiers back to civilian life. The country has also had its share of political corruption scandals in the last few years, tied closely to similar issues in Brazil.

Finally, the economy of Colombia is projected to grow approximately 2.5% this year, after a dismal 2016 with El Niño causing significant damage and falling crude prices. While this is certainly great news compared to Brazil, the country’s economy is still slow, yet moderately stable.

Despite a somewhat positive economic outlook, and a signed peace agreement, Colombia is still very much in turmoil and faces an uphill battle to prosperity. With corruption scandals erupting across the country, this poses a real threat to all that has been built throughout the last few years.

Spotlight on: Ecuador

The economic situation in Ecuador is similarly delicate, although not quite as dire as Brazil’s. While the country posted modest growth between 2007 and 2014, the economy has seen a sharp downtown since then because of the fall in oil prices. In fact, The World Bank is projecting that Ecuador’s economy will fall by 2.9% this year, the region’s worst economic performance after Venezuela. Yet, a new president does bring with him some hope, with comments noting this new administration may be amenable to working with the International Monetary Fund to help stabilize the economy.

Politically, Ecuador is the most stable of the Latin American countries discussed in this blog. A new president was sworn in on May 24, but Lenín Moreno is from the same political party as the previous president, who held the office for 10 years. Certainly President Moreno faces challenges as a new administration takes office and looks to make a mark, but it’s nothing compared to the problems seen in Brazil or Colombia.

Ecuador’s short and long-term outlook is tenuous at best right now. The economy is tired and slow, and the new government hasn’t discussed any major plans to help. Politically, the country is stable, but many Ecuadorians will still be looking for better opportunities for their children.

What the U.S. has to offer

Thinking of the economic and political turmoil in Latin America, by comparison, the problems faced by the U.S. seem tame and manageable. Protests against the current administration have been peaceful, and so far recent legislation does not seem to be affecting the Latin American region as much as others (such as the Middle East). While many international students are concerned about safety in the U.S., due to worse circumstances in Latin America this issue may be of somewhat less importance to students from this region.

Plus, the economy in the U.S. is booming – household wealth is now at its highest level in a decade and unemployment has fallen to a 29-year low. This shows incredible opportunity for international students who prioritize learning beyond the classroom and dream of staying in the U.S. post-graduation to get some work experience.

However, it will be critical for U.S. admissions officers to remember that the Latin American economy isn’t as strong, which could mean affordability becomes an issue for more potential students in the region.

  • Thus, if your university offers scholarships to international students, make sure that information is readily available.
  • Fixed tuition, for all four years of a student’s undergraduate studies, could also be a great selling point to many Latin American families.

Why invest in Latin America

Looking back, when the international higher education industry scrambled with professors and students stranded due to the travel ban, one lesson became immediately clear. To survive whatever the future holds, universities must diversify their international student recruitment strategies. And Latin America holds tremendous opportunity for those willing to seize it.

It’s worth noting that Latin American students remain quite mobile, despite last year’s statistics. Like most of the region, a higher-level view is most useful, and the number of students studying in the U.S. from the region has grown by nearly 32% over the last five years.

While the region saw a slight decline in the number of students coming to the U.S. last year, almost all of that can be attributed directly to Brazil which posted a sharp decline – due to the termination of Brazil’s Scientific Mobility Program. However, comparing students who were sponsored to study in the U.S. to those coming of their own volition is like comparing apples to oranges.

Universities who make connections and visit students in Latin America now will be in the best position to leverage those relationships for years to come. Families will remember those who came and provided strong, stable higher education solutions when they most needed it – and those who chose to stay and return later will find their jobs much more difficult.



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