How ‘America First’ puts international students last

The Institute of International Education’s new Open Doors report signals troubling times for United States higher education institutions. Although the total enrolment of international students increased modestly (1.5%), this estimate is somewhat misleading since it includes a 15.8% increase in students participating in Optional Practical Training (OPT).

New international enrolment, a more accurate measure of enrolment trends, declined by 6.6% for the 2017-18 academic year, doubling the 3.3% loss from the previous year. Removing OPT from the analysis yields a 1.3% contraction in total international enrolment, the largest year-over-year decline since 2004-05.

Declines in enrolments from long-time top contributors are especially notable. To weather the contraction, institutions and others would do well to understand the range of dynamics and implications that are in play.

Losses or gains spread among countries

Despite a 5.4% growth in total enrolment from India, the number of Indian students pursuing a degree at the undergraduate and graduate levels shrank by 6.2%, representing a loss of 7,879 students. The increase in total enrolment is largely due to a 32% increase in OPT participation. Indian students comprise 37.1% of OPT participants, despite constituting only 17.9% of total international students.

Saudi Arabian enrolment declined 15.5% overall, and 13.7% for undergraduate and graduate students. The latter figure translates into a net loss of 6,138 students.

Enrolment from South Korea continued its unabated decline, shrinking 7% for its seventh straight year of losses. Other notable declines include numbers from Canada (-4.3%) and Mexico (-8.1%).

While the total number of students from China increased by 3.6%, year-over-year enrolment declined for the eighth year in a row from its peak of +29.9% for the 2009-10 academic year.

Brazil, reeling from the loss of the Scientific Mobility Scholarship Program and a host of economic and political crises, recovered somewhat from two years of massive enrolment losses, growing 11.7%. It is still, notably, down 38% from the 2014-15 academic year.

Vietnam (+8.4%), Nepal (+14.3%) and Nigeria (+8.4%) all exhibited strong growth.

Causes of new enrolment declines

While it is easy to point to the political and social climate as the sole source of the 6.6% decline in new enrolment, this oversimplification makes light of the webwork of factors dictating international student mobility into the US.

The reduction of scholarship programmes in key source countries such as Brazil and Saudi Arabia, ambitious and effective internationalisation strategies in several countries that compete with the US for international students, the rapid proliferation of degrees available in English and ever-ballooning tuition fees at US higher education institutions are just some of the factors international enrolment managers must contend with in their efforts to recruit students.

In a complex and multifaceted recruitment environment, it is difficult, if not impossible, to disentangle the various factors contributing to the decline and measure their respective influence. With this caveat firmly established, it would be naïve to ignore the pernicious influence of the current political and social climate, which at most drives the trend, and at least, exacerbates it.

Seventy-one per cent of survey respondents in a recent World Education Services’ research report felt that the political environment in the US made it more difficult to meet international enrolment targets, while 60% indicated increases in visa delays or denials. While political rhetoric may deter international students from applying, visa denials create an unassailable barrier to entry.

Add to this the increasingly precarious future of H-1B visas and a spate of devastating mass shootings, and you have the conditions for massive enrolment declines. Indian students, in particular, are both highly concerned with physical safety and conscious of changes to visa policies. Enrolment declines from India, the second-largest source country of international students in the US, has a large impact on total numbers.

What to watch for

In a climate where consequential public policies proliferate at a Tweet’s pace, the spectre of the unknown looms large. The troubling reports last month that US President Donald Trump intimated a ban on Chinese international students and told a group of executives that “almost every [Chinese] student that comes over to this country is a spy”, could portend a massive barrier to access.

With Chinese enrolment growth already declining precipitously, a move to block access entirely would make the future of Chinese student mobility to the US a foregone conclusion. Given that one-third of all international students in the US are Chinese, the consequences of this would be devastating.

A longer-term concern is how declining international enrolment may impact higher education institutions financially and operationally, and whether such impacts could create a vicious circle that further accelerates decline.

International students comprise the majority of STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – students at the graduate level and, in some disciplines, dwarf their domestic counterparts. In 2017, the National Foundation for American Policy reported that 81% of full-time graduate students in electrical engineering programmes, for example, are international.

A dual threat of declining domestic and international enrolment could put many programmes and institutions in a precarious position. Programmes deprived of resources and students will lose their appeal for international students, potentially driving a downward trend.

Concluding thoughts

The rhetoric and uncertainty surrounding US visa policies has a chilling effect on prospective international students, contributing to two consecutive years of new enrolment declines. While the circumstances and direction of change differ among sending countries, it is clear that in the aggregate, international student enrolment is declining.

Rationalising the downward trend as an anomaly or a peripheral phenomenon will do little to alleviate the damage of further declines. Mitigating further declines and preparing for their potential impact on higher education institutions requires an honest recognition that the declines are real, pronounced and troubling.

Paul Schulmann is the associate director of research at World Education Services in New York. This post represents the views of the author and not of World Education Services.