Decline in International Student Enrollments: An Ominous Bellwether for the U.S. Economy?

After years of surging enrollments by international students in U.S. undergraduate and graduate degree programs, foreign student enrollment began a decline in 2016 that continued in 2017, according to multiple reports.

While various surveys revealed flat or slight drops at the undergraduate level for fall 2017 in international student “yield” – the percentage of accepted students who actually enroll – the decline in graduate school yield was more pronounced.  A survey by the Council of Graduate Schools found that 46% of graduate school deans reported “substantial” drops in international student enrollment for the fall of 2017.

International students in the U.S. comprise 20% of master’s and doctoral degree students, and in STEM fields, international graduate students far outnumber U.S. graduate students.

The National Foundation for American Policy, in an October 2017 report, found that from 1995 to 2015, while the number of U.S. graduate students in computer science increased by 45%, international graduate computer science students grew by 480%, to outnumber their U.S. peers by nearly four to one. The same report found that in U.S. graduate level programs in 2015,

(f)oreign nationals account(ed) for 81 percent of the full-time graduate students in electrical engineering and petroleum engineering, 79 percent in computer science, 75 percent in industrial engineering, 69 percent in statistics, 63 percent in mechanical engineering and economics, statistics, 59 percent in civil engineering and 57 percent in chemical engineering.

But that trend may be reversing.  The National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators 2018 report notes an “overall 6% decline in international graduate student enrollment from fall 2016 to fall 2017.”  The U.S. State Department issued 16% fewer student visas in FY 2017 than in FY 2016, with certain countries showing steeper declines.  Citizens of India and China were issued 24% and 22% fewer student visas, respectively, in FY 2017 compared to FY 2016.

Conversely, international student enrollment in other English-speaking countries such as Australia and Canada have seen enrollments surge.  Canada saw an 11% increase in international student enrollment from fall 2016 to fall 2017, following on the heels of a 17.5% increase from 2015 to 2016. International students cited Canada’s reputation as a “safe” and “tolerant and nondiscriminatory society” as two of their top three reasons for choosing that country, according to Canada’s Bureau for International Education.  Moreover, CBIE notes that 51% of international students in Canada plan to immigrate to Canada.  The Canadian government encourages this, and in 2016 amended its immigration laws to increase the favorable weight given to education attained at Canadian institutions when considering applications from intending immigrants.  Similarly, Australia saw a 15% increase in international university students from 2016 to 2017, and its immigration system facilitates remaining in Australia after graduation by international students who want to pursue permanent residency there.   In contrast, U.S. law requires student visa denial to any international student believed to have the long-term intention to immigrate to the U.S.

While it may be too soon to call the decline in international students to the U.S. a trend, there are worrying portents that it may continue during this Administration, both due to actual policy shifts and rhetoric, and to prospective international students’ perceptions of a new hostility in the U.S.’s attitude towards immigrants. In addition, changes making it more difficult, following degree completion, for international students and their spouses and children to transition to employment and to permanent residence in the U.S. may make other countries more attractive destinations.

The short-term costs of these shifts are significant. In the U.S., in response to reduced tuition revenues from fewer international students (who ordinarily pay the highest possible rate), some higher education institutions are having to reduce costs, including by cutting faculty and courses or majors.  A decline in graduate students can result in a university’s reduced capacity to conduct research, and correspondingly, to attract top faculty. Local communities also suffer, since international students live and spend money in their college or university towns.

The long-term costs are likely to be the most damaging, if U.S. employers cannot get the highly educated talent that they need.  For example, in 2015, 57% of Silicon Valley STEM workers with Bachelor’s degrees or higher were foreign born.  If the U.S. loses its ability to attract and keep the brightest minds from around the world, we may cease to be a global leader in innovation in myriad sectors and professions.

Fall 2018 international student higher education enrollment numbers will help us understand if the 2017 decline was a signal of worse to come, or a blip.  Let us hope for the strength of our nation, our communities, and our economy, that it was the latter.