International students warming to US after Biden victory
The improved perceptions of the US among students surveyed in early 2021 could impact on the pulling power of rival destination countries Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia, the research suggests.
A survey of more than 800 prospective international students in more than 40 countries who are interested in studying in the US – albeit with more than half of respondents based in India – has found that more than three quarters (76%) have improved perceptions of the US since the 2020 presidential election, with 67% stating they are now more likely to study there.
“I really hope that the result of the election helps students like me to move to America and pursue our dreams,” said one respondent.
Simon Emmett, CEO of IDP Connect, said US higher education institutions should review their marketing and recruitment programmes to take full advantage of the change in perceptions.
“Since the election in November 2020, we’ve seen higher search activity for the US, with the US now overtaking the UK in regard to international student search volumes.”
He said: “US universities, colleges and education institutions should be looking at their recruitment strategies and practices to ensure they capture this momentum and support students in their decision-making process.”
When asked how nine key factors would be affected by the Biden administration, respondents expected all to improve, with the welfare of international students, safety of its citizens and visitors, and post-study work visa policies perceived to see the most improvements.
Furthermore, the majority of students (69%) expected the new presidential administration would have a positive effect on their home country.
As the students surveyed were at the early stages of their journey, many indicated they are still considering other destinations. Of those surveyed, half (50%) were also considering Canada, while 41% were considering the UK, just over a quarter (28%) were considering Australia and 13% were considering New Zealand as their study destination in addition to the US.
This suggests that rising demand for study places in the US could mean increased competition for market share among these rival destination countries, the research notes.
The survey also showed that students from Africa were more likely to be exploring their study options in the US and Canada, while Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian students tended to look at the US and UK, IDP Connect said. The country from which students had the most improved perception of the US was Kenya.
A prospective graduate student from Nigeria said: “With this new administration, the United States will favour citizens of my country to study appropriately with due consideration.”
Emmett said the findings of the research are a reminder that students are tuned into global political discussions.
“Of the students who stated they have a high awareness of US politics, 86% reported a better perception following the election,” Emmett said.
Respondents were asked to rate how they feel the new administration would affect nine key factors on a scale of 0-10, with 0 representing ‘will become much worse’ and 10 representing ‘will become much better’. Overall, students expect all nine factors to improve.
This list was topped by ‘welfare of international students’ (7.52), followed by ‘safety of citizens and visitors’ (7.48), ‘post-study work visa policies’ (7.32), ‘economic stability of the US’ (7.28), ‘perceptions of the US overseas’ (7.24), ‘response to coronavirus’ (7.17), ‘political stability of the US’ (7.11), ‘management of social issues, eg community divisions’ (7.10) and ‘travel restriction policies’ (6.94).
Among respondents, 13% indicated they had high awareness of US politics (‘I follow US politics closely’), compared with moderate awareness (34%), low awareness (42%) and no awareness (‘I do not follow US politics’) (11%).
Biden’s first steps
On his first day in office, Biden revoked former president Donald Trump’s travel bans blocking people from seven mostly Muslim-majority nations from entering the United States, a critical first step towards rebuilding the reputation of US higher education in a global context.
Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education (ACE), in late November wrote to then President-Elect Joe Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris on behalf of 43 US university associations calling on them to move to ensure that American colleges and universities are “once again, the destination of choice for the world’s best international students and scholars”.
They urged Biden to withdraw Trump administration proposals to limit international students’ duration of stay and make it harder and costlier to obtain H-1B visas, which provide a pathway for foreign-born researchers to stay in the US on a long-term basis.
They also urged him to make it clear that the Optional Practical Training programme would remain in place.
Biden has since proposed across the board changes to US immigration laws, including a step to make it easier for international graduate students with advanced STEM degrees to stay in the US by exempting them from immigrant visa caps.
The draft immigration bill also includes permission for ‘dual intent’, which would mean student visa applicants no longer have to promise that they intend to leave the US when they finish their studies. Under the current single intent requirement, nine in 10 visa denials – close to a quarter of all applications – relate to a failure to convince officials that they solely intend to come and study and then leave.
However, it is not clear yet if the bill could garner enough political support.
Emmett said: “While the new administration has a more welcoming stance towards international students than the predecessor, it will be interesting to see if student perceptions of the US as a study destination continue to improve over the long term.”
Motivations for study in US
When asked why they are interested in studying in the US, the top motivation among respondents was ‘quality of teaching compared to my home country’ (64%), ‘modern, progressive, dynamic’ (59%), ‘institution or university of choice is located there’ (46%), ‘availability of part-time work’ (43%), ‘multicultural’ (33%), ‘attractive climate, weather, environment’ (30%), ‘safe country’ (29%), ‘Optional Practical Training or post-study work programme’ (26%), ‘affordable place to live and study’ (18%) and ‘family or friends recommended’ (14%).
Among those who responded, 51% were interested in graduate programmes, 30% in undergraduate programmes and 19% in other (non-degree) programmes. Their expected start date of studying abroad was April to July 2021 (19%), August to October 2021 (38%), January to March 2022 (12%), April to July 2022 (6%), August to October 2022 (15%) and ‘beyond 2022’ (8%).
The survey results come with the caveat that they are dominated by views of students in India, one of the largest source countries for international students in the US. A majority and by far the largest group of respondents were located in India (483), followed by Kenya (74), Bangladesh (74), Indonesia (50), Egypt (29), Pakistan (27), Nepal (22), Philippines (22), Vietnam (16) and Cambodia (15).
In 2019-20 the top five source countries for the more than one million international students in the US were: China, 372,532 students (34.6%); India, 193,124 (18%); South Korea, 49,809 (4.6%); Saudi Arabia, 30,957 (2.9%); and Canada, 25,992 (2.4%), according to data from the Institute of International Education’s Open Doors report.