International Student Enrollment Declines in U.S. Continue

The most recent Open Doors report of new international students at U.S. universities in  the fall of 2019 shows declining enrollments for the fourth straight year.  While the decline was level with the prior year’s rate, and less than that of the fall of 2017, it remains troubling, especially when contrasted with multiple years of double digit percentage increases in international student enrollment in Australia and Canada.

Starting with the 2016-2017 academic year, new international student enrollment to U.S. institutions  overall has fallen by over 10 percent.

As noted here, international students make up the majority of students attaining bachelors and graduate degrees in STEM fields at U.S.  colleges and universities.  They have also been an important presence in graduate M.B.A. programs, where,  as the Wall Street Journal recently reported, international student enrollments are also declining.   Apart from their positive economic impact during their studies, international students also represent a vital potential component of our nation’s future professional workforce, making persistent declines in enrollment concerning

The Open Doors report reveals that over half of all institutions reported decreased foreign student enrollment in the fall of 2019.  Reasons for the declines included increased competition with universities in other countries, as well as student visa application processing delays and denials, as reported by 81% of institutions accepting international students.  Indeed, in FY 2015, the year before the declining enrollments began, the State Department issued more than 644,000 student visas, compared to just under 363,000 student visas in FY 2018.   Visa issuance to students from China and India fell particularly sharply, from over 274,000 and nearly 75,000 respectively in FY 2015, to fewer than 99,000 and 43,000 respectively in FY 2018.

Additional reasons cited as contributing to the enrollment declines were concerns about the political environment and physical safety for foreign students in the U.S.

Institutions continued to report that the U.S. social and political environment (57.9 percent) and feeling unwelcome in the United States (48.6 percent) were factors contributing to new international student declines, though the percentages were slightly lower than in the 2018 Snapshot Survey. In addition, institutions reported that concerns about physical safety in the United States remained a factor contributing to declining enrollments (45.8 percent). Institutions noted that the combination of political rhetoric and personal safety continued to cause hesitation for prospective international students and their families.

In contrast, international students surveyed in Canada responded that two of the top three reasons  why they chose that country included “Canada’s reputation as a tolerant and non-discriminatory society” and  “Canada’s reputation as a safe country”.   In addition, 60% of international students in Canada plan to apply for residency there after graduating, and Canada has liberalized its immigration laws to facilitate this.

In the meantime, the U.S.’s outdated immigration laws include unrealistically low  annual numerical limits on skills-based immigrants, raising barriers to foreign students who might want to remain and work permanently in the U.S. Those limits have led to decades-long wait lists for employment based immigrants from countries such as India and China, countries which represented 55% of all international students in Canada in 2018.

In addition, a pending lawsuit seeks to end the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program that enables international higher education students to engage in employment in their fields during their education or for a limited time after receiving their degrees, providing U.S. employers with talented employees and potentially leading to permanent job offers for foreign students.    Groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers have intervened in the lawsuit to support the educational and economic importance of the OPT program, as explained here.

For the future strength of the U.S. economy, policies that make the U.S. a less attractive destination for international higher education students should concern us all.