International student growth is the slowest since 9/11

Universities in the United States last year enrolled more than a million international students, up 1.5% from the previous year, the slowest rate of growth since the years after the 2001 terrorist attacks, says a report released on Tuesday.

Undergraduate enrolments, which represent the largest share of foreign students in the United States, rose just 0.8%, to 442,746, the data show, while the number of students enrolling in a US institution for the first time dropped 6.6%, to 271,738. Graduate enrolments, the second-largest share, fell 2.1% to 382,953. Non-degree enrolments dropped 10.1% to 65,631.

The Institute of International Education (IIE), which conducted the study, highlighted last year's record-breaking total enrolment, of 1,094,792, bringing to three the number of years in a row in which enrolments surpassed one million.

The largest enrolment increases occurred in a programme known as Optional Practical Training (OPT), which allows students to work for a year in the United States either during or just after completing their studies. OPT participation increased 15.8%, to 203,462 students last year, the report says. It was likely fuelled by a 2016 tweak to the policy, which allows graduate students in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics to apply for extended stays.

The findings, based on data collected from universities, were largely unsurprising. IIE found last year that new student enrolments, an important indicator of future enrolment trends, peaked in 2015-16, at 300,743, but declined the following year, 2016-17, to 290,836. Other studies, one by the non-profit Council of Graduate Students and another by the National Science Foundation, an independent federal agency, also have shown drops.

Enrolments increased just 0.6% in 2002-03, the first year after the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington. Enrolment growth declined over the next three years. Annual enrolment growth has increased by between 2.9% and 10% in the years since 2006-07.

The flattening growth has raised concerns among universities and higher education organisations that changes to US immigration policies implemented by the Trump administration are discouraging international students from studying in the United States.

More than 300 institutions and higher education organisations participated in a social media campaign, #YouAreWelcomeHere, launched in November 2016 by Temple University in Philadelphia. The campaign drew international attention in January 2017 after President Donald Trump signed an executive order that barred citizens from Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. In June 2018, the US Supreme Court upheld the travel ban.

New restrictions proposed

Last month, the Trump administration published a notice that it plans to propose a new regulation that would limit the maximum period of time international students can stay in the United States. Current visa regulations allow international students to stay as long as they maintain their status as students.

Esther Brimmer, executive director of NAFSA, a US association that represents the international education sector, noted in a statement that "the unwelcoming rhetoric and policies at the highest echelons of government are reverberating and inadvertently encouraging students and scholars to study elsewhere".

In a press call with reporters, IIE and US State Department officials stressed that multiple factors likely explain the downward trend. They did not attribute the declines to Trump administration policies.

"Unlike a decade ago, you can't point to one thing anymore," said IIE President Allan Goodman. He cited cost and increased competition from other countries as key factors. "We're not hearing that students feel they can't come here. We're hearing that they have choices ... [that] for the first time, we have real competition."

The annual rate of increase began to slow in 2015-16, before Trump was elected president, said Caroline Casagrande, deputy assistant secretary of state for academic programmes. "It is quite frankly unwarranted" to attribute this year's decline in growth to the political environment, she said.

In opening remarks, Marie Royce, assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs, noted that State Department exchange programme participants receive a letter, signed by Trump, wishing them "great joy and enhanced knowledge of the world around you”.

Other findings include:
  • • By country, the largest decline in enrolments (15.5%) occurred from Saudi Arabia, where a generous government scholarship founded in 2005 has been scaled back in recent years due to budget cuts. Saudi Arabia remains one of the top countries of origin for international students in the United States – fourth last year behind China, India and South Korea – but the death last month of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi inside a Saudi consulate in Turkey has raised new concerns about future diplomatic relations.

  • • Drops in enrolments from other sending countries include South Korea (7%), Canada (4.3%) and Mexico (8.1%). Just two of the seven countries directly affected by the travel ban have students enrolled in the United States, the report data show. Venezuelan student enrolments last year dropped 2%, to 8,371, while Iran's increased 1.1%, to 12,783.

  • • The IIE report cited US Department of Commerce data showing that international students contributed US$42.4 billion to the US economy through tuition, room and board and related expenses. A NAFSA economic analysis, released Tuesday, reported a lower total, US$39 billion, a 5.8% increase in dollars contributed compared with the previous year. It also reported that international students supported more than 455,000 jobs last year, a 1.2% increase over the previous year.

  • • Nearly two-thirds of students' primary funding last year came from personal or family sources. Employers funded about 19% and foreign governments or universities funded about 5%. US colleges and universities, meanwhile, were the primary funding source for about 16% of international students, and the US government and private US sponsors, 0.2% each.

  • • The number of US students earning academic credits abroad grew by 2.3%, to 332,727, in 2016-17. About one in 10 US students study abroad during their undergraduate career. Moreover, nearly three in 10 students (29.2%) identified as racial or ethnic minorities. The United Kingdom is the top destination, followed by Italy, Spain, France, Germany and China.
Commenting separately on the report’s finding, Rahul Choudaha, executive vice president of global engagement and research at Studyportals, told University World News that the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant stance and rhetoric came at a time when other factors like the cost of education and competition were already making it difficult for international students to study in the US. “A decline of 6.6% in new enrolment is a clear indicator of this unfavourable trend,” he said.

“The US has always been the most preferred destination for many international students. However, this is the first time higher education institutions have had to persuade international students about the attractiveness of the US as a destination. American universities and colleges must become more proactive in reaching, engaging and supporting international students throughout their educational lifecycle.”