“We’re seeing growth, but yes, we’re also seeing some slowdowns. That’s really due to a range of factors, some of which have to do with the U.S. but many of which have to do with other countries,” says Rajika Bhandari, senior advisor for research and strategy at IIE.
Growth in the international student population is at its lowest since 2005-06, when it decreased slightly. Signs of this recent slowdown first appeared in the 2016-17 school year when the international student population increased by a mere 3.4 percent. That came after a period of strong growth, with the number of international students increasing 7.1 percent in 2015-16 and 10 percent in 2014-15.
In addition to competition from other countries, admissions counselors say safety is a concern for international students and their families, citing mass shootings, as well as a political climate which has seen restrictions placed on travel to the U.S. from some majority Muslim nations.
“Another large concern among prospective students is not feeling welcome amidst national rhetoric that targets certain countries,” Lisa A. Maroni, associate director of international outreach at Shoreline Community College , wrote in an email. “Of course, the worst anxiety was provoked by the many iterations of the ‘Muslim ban,’ but it continues to be inflamed with comments such as those that denigrate nations in Africa, create distrust of people coming from Latin America or those that accuse Chinese students of being spies.”
But Allan E. Goodman, IIE president and CEO, says his team isn’t hearing those same concerns.
“We’re not hearing that students feel they can’t come here. We’re hearing that they have choices, we’re hearing that we have competition from other countries,” Goodman says.
China, India, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Canada remain the top sending countries, however the number of students from these countries is slowing, even in some cases declining. China sent 363,341 students for the 2017-18 academic year, up 3.6 percent, and India sent 196,271 students, an increase of 5.4 percent over the prior year.
South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Canada all saw a decline in students coming to the U.S. to study, which has been a recent trend for those countries. The South Korean student population in the U.S. declined by 7 percent, Saudi Arabia by 15.5 percent and Canada by 4.3 percent.
Goodman adds that limited growth also comes from countries such as Saudi Arabia scaling back generous scholarship programs, as seen in the significant decline in Saudi students.
Caroline Casagrande, a Department of State official, says it is “unwarranted” to attribute the slow growth rate to the political climate, noting the U.S. still has the most international students.
But college officials say concerns persist among prospective international students.
“There are a lot of questions now about what is going to happen in the future with U.S. immigration policies (and) visa policies,” says Natalie Mikulak, associate director for international recruitment and outreach at the University of Colorado–Boulder.
She says those questions began to increase around the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
A 2017 survey of prospective international students by higher education firm Royall & Company, now known as EAB Enrollment Services, found that 32.7 percent of the 2,104 respondents indicated a decline in interest in studying in the U.S. due to the presidential administration, travel restrictions, safety and cost.
“They just really want to know if they’ll be welcome,” Mikulak says.
To ease those concerns, she says CU–Boulder has done more individualized outreach to international students, connecting them with peer mentoring resources. The institution also offers an International Student Guide Program, which pairs those students with American students during orientation and for group activities throughout the semester, and a Boulder Friends of International Students group, which connects students with local families for a full academic year of monthly meetings and activities.
Numerous universities around the country also have participated in the #YouAreWelcomeHere campaign, bringing the hashtag to life with scholarship opportunities for international students.
Muhammad Rasul, an international student from Pakistan studying at Florida State University, wrote in a Twitter direct message that he has had a “wonderful experience” in the U.S., though it has not been without issues. Rasul says he’s experienced “a sense of hostility” in the U.S., including racial remarks.
Those experiences, however, have not been on campus.
“Florida State is where I actually feel very safe , despite all the shootings,” Rasul says, referencing acts of gun violence that have occurred in Florida and around the country.
Stacy Soderstrom, assistant director for international student and scholar services at Central Washington University, says she has noticed increased questions around guns and safety.
“To address these concerns, CWU consciously promotes our safe, small, welcoming town in Washington state. We speak candidly about gun laws in our state when asked, which are among the strictest in the country,” Soderstrom wrote in an email.
While admissions counselors agree that they are hearing increased concerns about gun violence and the political climate, they also acknowledge that cost is an issue.
“Universities in Europe offer degrees in English and many at a significantly more affordable cost than the U.S.,” says Soderstrom, adding that those schools have stepped up recruiting efforts.
Maroni says simplified visa procedures in Canada have attracted more international students.
Another factor, she says, is the desire for students overseas to stay closer to home, choosing to attend universities in countries such as South Korea, Australia, Singapore and Malaysia.
“The biggest new development is that there are real competitor countries out there that we’ve never had before,” Goodman said.