Annual Study: International Student Numbers in U.S. Drop

The U.S. once again hosted more than 1 million international students in the 2019-2020 academic year, according to data from the latest Open Doors Report on International Education, and remains the top global destination for those studying abroad.

But the news coming out of the 2020 report, released today by the Institute of International Education and the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, isn’t entirely positive for U.S. colleges. It shows overall enrollment for international students in the U.S. slipped 1.8% in 2019-2020 compared with the prior academic year — the first decrease in international student enrollment since 2005-2006, per IIE numbers.

Likewise, new international student enrollments were down 0.6% in 2019-2020 over the prior year.

Despite these slight slips, IIE officials see some positive trends, noting that two years ago new enrollments declined by 6.6% — making this latest decrease a sign of continued stabilization.

“This is likely due to extensive efforts that U.S. higher education institutions are making to attract and welcome international students to their campuses,” says Mirka Martel, head of research, evaluation and learning at IIE.

The number of international students in the Optional Practical Training program, known as OPT, grew by 0.2% in 2019-2020 — continuing a recent trend of increased participation. OPT allows international students and recent graduates to work in their field of study at a U.S. company either before graduation or, more commonly, afterward.

[Read: What to Know About Optional Practical Training Work Authorization.]

Compared with the prior year, the leading areas of study for international students remain engineering; math and computer science; and business and management. Engineering continues to be at the top, with 20.5%, despite a 4.4% decline in the number of international students studying this field.

Where International Students Come From

Two of the three leading countries that send students to the U.S. saw declines in those numbers. Although China sent 0.8% more students in fall 2019, India and South Korea sent 4.4% and 4.7% fewer students, respectively.

Some countries, however, are sending more of their citizens to study in the U.S. Spain had the highest percentage increase with a 9.5% rise in students studying in the U.S. Similarly, Bangladesh sent 7.1% more students to the U.S. in 2019-2020.

Overall, China has the largest share of students at U.S. colleges of any country, comprising 34.6% of the total. Of the international student population in the U.S. in 2019-2020, 18% were from India and 4.6% hailed from South Korea.

Despite strained diplomatic relations between the U.S. and China, officials say Chinese students remain welcomed.

“We continue to welcome Chinese students for legitimate study across all fields,” says Anthony Koliha, director of the Office of Global Educational Programs at the U.S. Department of State. “We know that (Chinese) students want to come to the United States, and we want them here. We want to make sure that they have the opportunity to experience democracy and the rule of law here in the United States.”

“We welcome students on a global basis,” adds Allan E. Goodman, IIE president.

Still, some Chinese students have reported being targets of racist and xenophobic incidents since the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, which is believed to have originated in China before spreading globally.

Why New International Enrollments Are Declining

Fall 2019 marks the first decline in total international student enrollment in the U.S. in more than a decade. But international student growth in the past two years has been anemic, increasing 1.5% in the 2017-2018 academic year and 0.05% in 2018-2019.

These numbers for the past three years come after robust growth in students coming to the U.S. over the previous decade. While international students have comprised 5.5% of the student population in the U.S. for the last three years, that number has largely remained steady due to an increase in OPT participation, not new enrollments.

In a press call, officials didn’t directly address recent shortfalls, though last year the cost of higher education in the U.S. was cited as a factor. Surveys have also cited the U.S. political climate as an area of concern for international students since President Donald Trump’s election in 2016 and his harder line with China in some policy areas.

For Divyansh Kaushik, a Ph.D. student at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania, the uncertain political climate was something he considered when moving from India to the U.S. for a master’s program at CMU in 2017.

“It wasn’t clear at that time what changes the Trump administration might make over the years,” Kaushik says.

Kaushik says some political rhetoric comes across as unwelcoming to international students, and he views attempts to change visa programs and OPT as negatively affecting international students.

“The least you expect is some consistency in policies, some stability while you focus on your studies,” Kaushik says.

[Read: How International Students Can Adjust to U.S. College Classes.]

A silver lining to Kaushik is that universities have battled back against policies thought to be harmful to international students. When the Trump administration acted to require international students in the U.S. to take classes in person or be sent home when colleges largely shifted to online courses during the coronavirus pandemic, it was higher education institutions that fought in court and compelled the administration to reverse the policy decision, Kaushik notes.

“For those (students) who are coming in, I think it’s very easy to get distracted by the political climate, the political rhetoric, but they should know that their universities are fighting for them,” Kaushik says.

Asked directly about whether Trump administration policies have turned international students away, Martel points to a dip in new enrollments in 2015-2016, prior to his election. She also notes that after new enrollments declined by 6.6% in the 2017-2018 academic year, that figure is down by only 0.6% for 2019-2020.

A statement sent on background and attributed to an unnamed State Department official did not directly address the question or include any mention of Trump, instead noting that “over the last two years we have committed more resources to international student mobility than ever before.”

The Outlook for International Education in Fall 2021

In addition to the Open Doors Report, IIE also released a look ahead to next fall based on surveys with a subset of more than 710 colleges and universities from the 2,900-plus schools surveyed for Open Doors. Whereas the 2020 report does not factor in COVID-19 since it was based on data from last fall, the snapshot does and suggests that dark days are ahead for colleges looking to fill seats with international students.

[See: Webinar: The Road Ahead for International Students in the U.S.]

According to those survey findings, international student enrollment for fall 2020 is down 16%, largely due to new enrollments decreasing by 43%. Additionally, respondents indicated that nearly 40,000 international students hit pause on fall 2020 and deferred enrollment to a future date.

Experts are optimistic that international students will surge into the U.S. when the pandemic draws to a close.

“The great thing about the United States in higher education is we have such a breadth and depth of institutions, and so we have the capacity to respond to that surge,” Koliha says.

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