The number of new international students enrolled in American higher education in the fall of 2017 declined 6.6 percent from the previous year, according to a report released on Tuesday. The data solidify an emerging trend — they come on the heels of a 3-percent decline the prior year — and raise concerns about the desire of prospective international students to study in the United States.
Some observers have pegged at least part of the blame for the slowdown on the “Trump effect.” The combination of policies and rhetoric from the 45th president, the thinking goes, are making international students reconsider coming to the United States amid a political climate hostile to globalism.
But the organizations behind the annual “Open Doors” report — the Institute of International Education and the U.S. State Department — play down that narrative. It’s more complicated, they note, and the data reflect the choices of students who were probably considering colleges the year before Trump took office.
The primary culprits, they say, are the rising cost of American higher education; the scaleback of government-funded programs in some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, that encouraged study abroad; and stiffer competition for international students from other countries.
“The international-education consumer is always concerned about access, diversity, quality, cost, safety,” said Allan E. Goodman, president of the institute. “The biggest new development is there are real competitor countries out there that we’ve never had before. The list of top 100 universities in the world a decade ago were all British or American. Now there are a dozen international universities that are not American or British.”
Colleges rely on international students for tuition dollars and diversity. In an increasingly interconnected world, foreign students help expose American students to new cultures and customs. International students also have a broad financial impact. In 2017 they contributed $42.4 billion to the American economy through tuition, housing, and other expenses, according to the Department of Commerce.
The chart below shows the number of students enrolling for the first time at a American college or university over the last six academic years.
Different Nations, Different Factors
There were some bright spots, however. The overall number of international students in the United States increased by 1.5 percent, to a record 1.09 million. That rise was driven by an extension of Optional Practical Training, a program that allows students to stay on to work in the United States.
Students in science and engineering fields can now stay in the United States for 36 months instead of just 12 under an Obama-era extension of the program, making study in America a far more desirable option for students, and easing the concerns of employers worried about quick turnover. The number of students taking advantage of this benefit increased by 15.8 percent, to more than 200,000.
No one theory can explain all the data, said Rahul Choudaha, executive vice president for global engagement and research at Studyportals, a company that recruits international students online. He noted that the four countries that send the most students to the United States each have unique explanations for their slowdowns in growth or outright declines.
India is highly price-sensitive, so the cost of American higher education might be a barrier amid the rupee’s devaluation. Growth has decelerated in China, and Chinese parents are rethinking the value of the United States as an education destination. China and India saw increases of 3.6 percent and 5.4 percent, respectively, in their numbers of students studying in the United States, according to the report. Those figures represent slowdowns from recent years.
In Saudi Arabia, which had 44,432 students in the United States in the fall of 2017, a 15-percent decline from the year before, the pullback of support for study abroad is having an effect, Choudaha said. In South Korea, which had 54,555 students in the United States, a 7-percent drop from the prior year, the economy is strong and the population is shrinking.
The Top 10 Sources of International Students
These nations sent the most students to the United States in both the 2016-17 and 2017-18 academic years. From five of the nations, overall enrollments in the United States were down.
A ‘Sense of Pessimism’
But Choudaha is also very curious about students’ perceptions of studying in the United States in the age of Trump.
“There is one common thread that runs across all international students,” he said. “That thread is about safety and the perception of succeeding in the destination where they’re going.”
The current political environment is “unparalleled,” he added, and a “sense of pessimism” is making international students reconsider the United States.
There is some evidence that this is the case. Nearly one in three prospective international students surveyed said they had less interest in studying in the United States because of the political climate, according to a report last year by Royall & Company, a division of EAB (formerly the Education Advisory Board). The students’ most cited reason: the Trump administration.
The slowdown in international students is especially harmful to regional public universities, where the fast pace of nonresident tuition increases in the last five to eight years has eroded the value proposition they’ve traditionally offered to international students, Choudaha said.
Colleges are entering a third wave of recruitment strategy, he said. The first, before the 2008 economic crisis, was “sit and wait, and the students will come.” The second was becoming more proactive about recruiting. Now colleges will have to invest in international students’ experiences, so as to bolster word-of-mouth advertising.
“As costs keep increasing and competition keeps increasing,” Choudaha said, “institutions cannot just rely that students will naturally come to them. They have to provide better support services.”