New international student numbers decline for first time

The number of new international students in the United States declined by 3% in 2016-17 – dropping for the first time in the 12 years since the Open Doors survey of the Institute of International Education has reported new enrolments. But the overall number of international students rose by 3% to 1.08 million and Americans studying abroad increased by 4%.

The US hosted more than a million international students for the second year running, the survey found, with nearly 35,000 more students in the country on non-immigrant student visas. In 2016-17 there were 85% more international students than a decade ago, and they represent just over 5% of the more than 20 million students enrolled in US higher education.

But the new findings do herald a slowing of growth after 11 years of remarkable expansion, with the 3% increase in overall student numbers considerably lower than the hikes of 7% to 10% in the previous few years.

The 2017 Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange was published by the Institute of International Education, or IIE, and the US Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs on 13 November.

The IIE – a not-for-profit with 19 offices and affiliates worldwide that designs and manages scholarship, study abroad, workforce training and leadership development programmes – has conducted an annual statistical survey of international students in the US since its founding in 1919 and in partnership with the US Department of State since 1972.

The latest international enrolment online survey was carried out in September and October 2017 by IIE in cooperation with numerous university, college and professional associations. The Open Doors 2017 International Student Census data reflects 2,105 institutions, while US study abroad data flows from 1,412 institutions.

Explaining the concerning numbers

It had been forecast for some time that the perpetual boom in international student numbers would slow, and international educators have pointed to the drop in new students as a sign that America’s attractiveness as a destination is waning. The number of international students enrolled in a US college or university for the first time in 2016 declined by nearly 10,000 students to 291,000.

“The factors driving the slowing of growth include a mix of global and local economic conditions, and in some cases expanded higher education opportunities at home and declining populations,” said the IIE in a statement.

“The scaling back of large Saudi and Brazil government scholarship programmes were a significant factor, as the number of students from those two countries showed the biggest decreases, particularly in non-degree study.” The number of Saudi Arabian students declined by 14.2% to 52,600, while the steepest drop of 32.4% to 13,000 was in students from Brazil. 

Further, Open Doors found, much of the increase in numbers in the past couple of years was driven by more students pursuing 'optional practical training' after degree studies, and thus remaining longer in the US higher education system.

These flattening trends have a nearly two-year history, the report continues, as students reflected in the current Open Doors report were already on campus in September 2016 for the autumn term, and most had applied in 2015 and made their decisions in spring 2016. Given this, not much has been made of the so-called ‘Trump effect’.

IIE also conducted a separate online autumn enrolment survey to look at what campuses were seeing for the 2017-18 academic year. “The nearly 500 colleges and universities responding reported continued flattening in the overall number of enrolled students and an average decrease of 7% in the number of new enrolled students,” it said.

The IIE pointed out that international students benefit US communities and higher education in many ways. In 2016 international students added US$39 billion to the economy, their roles as teaching and research assistants supported academics, and their diverse perspectives enriched classroom learning for US students.

“Countries and multinational employers around the world are competing to attract top talent. As more countries become active hosts of international students and implement national strategies to attract them, the competition for top global talent in higher education and the workforce will only intensify,” said IIE President and CEO Allan E Goodman.

It was critical for US institutions “to set strategic goals and be proactive in reaching out to students and families in a wide range of countries in the coming year, and for the United States to keep its academic doors open to students from all over the world”.

Student source countries

The top places of origin for international students studying in the United States were China, India, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Canada, Vietnam, Taiwan, Japan, Mexico and Brazil.

Students from China and India now represent half of the total enrolment of international students in the US.

“For the third year in a row, the largest growth was in the number of students from India, primarily at the graduate level and in optional practical training,” said Open Doors. “China remains the top sending country, with almost twice the number of students in the US as India, but India’s rate of growth outpaced China’s.

“Despite a decrease of 3.8%, South Korea moved up to the third leading place of origin, after dropping to fourth place the previous year.” Saudi Arabia is the fourth leading source nation. After the top four, no source country represents more than 3% of international students, though each country had more than 7,000 students in America.

There were increases in the number of students from 18 of the top 25 places of origin, including China, India, Canada, Vietnam, Taiwan, Mexico, Iran, Nigeria, Nepal, Germany, Kuwait, France, Indonesia, Venezuela, Malaysia, Colombia, Spain and Bangladesh. “Nigeria (up 9.7%) and Nepal (up 20.1%) showed particularly strong increases.”

The number of students staying on after graduation for one to three years of optional practical training rose by 19% to more than 175,000, indicating a “strong desire” to gain career skills and connections before returning home.

Host states and institutions

Open Doors reported the continued internationalisation of campuses across America, “with nearly all of the top 25 host universities and all of the top 10 states hosting more international students than in the prior year”.

The top host states were California, with nearly 157,000 international students, followed by New York, Texas, Massachusetts, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio, Michigan and Indiana. Each of these states saw increases in international students in 2016-17.

For the fourth year, New York University hosted the largest number of international students, followed by the University of Southern California, Columbia, Northeastern, Arizona State and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The top 25 campuses hosted 22.4% of all international students, said the report. There are now 250 institutions in the US hosting 1,000 or more international students – up from 156 institutions in 2006-07.

“New York City is once again the top metropolitan area for international students, followed by Los Angeles, Boston and Chicago. Dallas surpassed San Francisco as the fifth leading metropolitan area.”

Americans studying abroad

According to Open Doors, 325,339 American students received academic credit for study abroad in 2015-16, an increase of 3.8%. “Study abroad by American students has more than tripled in the past two decades,” said the report.

“However, the rate of growth had slowed in recent years.” While the increase was around 46% over the past decade, from 223,534 students in 2005-06, it was 19% over the past five years. 

Only around 10% of all American undergraduate students, including those at community colleges, study abroad before graduating. For bachelor degree students the figure is 15.5%.

“The fact that 90% of all American undergraduate students enrolled in US higher education are graduating without an international experience means that there is still a long way to go.”

The IIE launched a Generation Study Abroad initiative in 2014, which aims to double the number of Americans studying abroad by 2020.

Europe is the top destination for American students, and there was a 3.5% rise in study abroad there in 2015-16. Europe attracts more than half of all US study abroad.

“The United Kingdom remains the leading destination for American students, followed by Italy, Spain, France and Germany – which overtook China as the fifth largest host destination, with Germany increasing by 8.1%,” said 2017 Open Doors.

There were declines in study abroad to China (down 8.6%), France (5.4%), Brazil (11.4% to 3,400 students) and India (5.8%).

“Japan, South Africa, Mexico, Denmark, Czech Republic, New Zealand, Cuba and the Netherlands all saw strong increases in hosting US study abroad students.” For Japan, the rise was a substantial 18%, indicating that the country’s efforts to open higher education up to the world are beginning to pay off with regard to international students.