US share of international students will keep falling

What do I know? Montaigne

I suspect that many readers of this article will either dismiss the premise that colleges and universities in the United States will continue to lose international student market share or dispute the facts I list.

Some may hope that the decline in international student enrolments in the United States for the autumn 2017 semester was just a blip; a one-off. Still others will blame the decline on the outcome of the 2016 election.

The fact is that for several years the United States has been losing its share of the international student market.

Last year the number of new international students declined by an average of 7%. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, the number of domestic undergraduate students decreased 224,000 or 1%. Was this one of the reasons why Moody’s changed its credit outlook for US higher education to ‘negative’ from ‘stable’?

The stakes are high. International student enrolment in the United States supplies US$39 billion in revenue and supports 450,000 jobs.

Let’s examine some facts:

In 2001, 28% of all international students were enrolled in US colleges and universities. By 2014, the figure was 22%.

In 2015-16, international student enrolment in the US increased by 7% from the prior year. But that was down from a 10% increase the previous year. In 2014-15, 304,040 Chinese students studied in the United States, a 10.8% increase from the previous year. However, in 2013-14, the increase was 21.4%.

There are several reasons why I believe the US will continue to lose international market share.

The Asian pivot

Countries with the fastest growing economies, populations and a growing middle class in Asia, like Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam, will dominate economic growth in the region. The governments in these countries have made education a priority and have invested heavily in the sector.

The result has been to create a political and economic ‘infrastructure’ in those countries that supports higher education enrolments and regional education hub growth.


Part of China’s higher education initiative is to become a major importer of international students.

One example of China’s higher education expansion was the founding of the Asian Universities Alliance on 29 April 2017. Joining Tsinghua University were several academic powerhouses in the region, including Peking University, the University of Tokyo, Seoul National University, the National University of Singapore and the University of Malaya.

Chinese colleges and universities now enrol more students from Africa than the United States and Britain combined.

The 2016 election

A great deal can and will be written about the implications of the election of Donald Trump as US president on higher education, both in the US and worldwide. The current perception of the US around the world is of a country that is unwelcoming to foreign students. Perception becomes reality and it will take several years to unpack the implications of the election and travel bans.

International 2017-18 ‘winners’

According to the Canadian Bureau for International Education, enrolments of foreign students soared in the autumn term for students from China, India, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Japan and Brazil. There are 270,000 new students studying in Canada, a 22% increase from the previous year. There are 350,000 international students, in total, studying on Canadian campuses.

International student enrolment increased 6% in Germany in the autumn semester. International students now make up more than 12% of the country’s student population.

For the autumn 2017 semester, more than 700,000 students from more than 190 countries enrolled on Australian campuses, an increase of more than 14% over the previous year.

National policies and enrolment targets

In June 2017, the British Council reported the following international enrolment targets for the following countries:
  • • China – 500,000 by 2020
  • • Australia – 720,000 by 2025
  • • Canada – 450,000 by 2022
  • • New Zealand – 143,000 by 2025
  • • Taiwan – 58,000 by 2019
  • • South Korea – 200,000 by 2023
  • • Malaysia – 250,000 by 2025
  • • Japan – 300,000 by 2020.

There will probably be no greater impact on worldwide higher education than the integration of technology into educational delivery methods. The internet has rendered geography irrelevant and digital options, especially in India and certain countries in Africa, are changing the way higher education is consumed.

The high cost of studying in the US and the reluctance of many US colleges and universities to embrace online learning and MOOCs – massive open online courses – will continue to erode America’s market share of the globally mobile student.


The biggest threat, in my opinion, to future international student enrolments in the US is a reluctance on the part of many college and university presidents, deans and enrolment managers to realise and take seriously that international student mobility is dominated by the options and choices students have.

We can either succumb to change or manage it. The choice is ours.

Marguerite J Dennis has been a higher education administrator for more than 40 years, at St John’s University in New York, at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, and at Suffolk University in Boston, United States. She is a consultant to colleges and universities in the United States and around the world on higher education administration, enrolment, retention and international programmes and is the author of five books on higher education, college admission and financing and international strategic planning.