International student applications to American campuses down in 2017: new study

Have fewer foreign students applied to American colleges and universities in the way of Trump’s election?  We’ve seen several attempts to determine this, but a new report claims the answer is clearly “yes”.

The number of newly arriving international students declined an average 7 percent in fall 2017, with 45 percent of campuses reporting drops in new international enrollment, according to a survey of nearly 500 campuses across the country by the Institute of International Education.

Let’s dig into some key details.

The total number of international students actually grew, by 3%.  The decline is in the number of new students.  Overall, “the new findings signal a slowing of growth”.

These numbers play out very differently in different institutions:

these numbers were not evenly distributed: 45 percent of the campuses reported declines in new enrollments for fall 2017, while 31 percent reported increases in new enrollments and 24 percent reported no change from last year.

For example, “Particularly hard hit are campuses in the Midwest, according to the institute.”

The New York Times article quietly mentions a key detail here:  “Another reason for the decline is increasing competition from countries like Canada, Britain and Australia, said Allan E. Goodman, president of the [IEE].”  Some of my readers will recognize my persistent claim that international education is becoming more competitive.

Why does this matter?  Foreign students are a significant piece of institutional finances:

The drop in new students signals potential financial difficulties for some small universities that have come to rely on money from foreign students, who provide an infusion of $39 billion into the United States economy each year.

Total numbers are fascinating.  Notice how international students have grown to 1/20 of all students attending American institutions:

The number of international students enrolled in U.S. higher education increased by 3.4 percent to 1,078,822 students in 2016/17… International students represent just over five percent of the more than 20 million students enrolled in U.S. higher education for the third year, up from three to four percent earlier in the decade. This increase is due to both the growing numbers of international students and small declines in the number of American students enrolled in U.S. higher education since the total U.S. higher education enrollment reached its peak in 2012/13.

(Note, too, that final note about American population decline.)

Where do international students come from?  Two countries dominate:

For the third year in a row, the largest growth was in the number of students from India, primarily at the graduate level and in optional practical training (OPT). China remains the top sending country, with almost twice the number of students in the U.S. as India, but India’s rate of growth outpaced China’s.

Students from the top two countries of origin—China and India—now represent approximately 50 percent of the total enrollment of international students in the United States.

It’s hard to tell if this report indicates a temporary blip or the reversal of a trend.  If it’s a blip, we should expect greater numbers of international students to apply to American colleges and universities once more.  If it’s a reversal… this will be a serious challenge to many campuses, both in terms of financials and diversity.

What might prompt the latter is continued fear of Trump’s policies, obviously.  That fear could grow, either because of new policies (think of greater immigration controls, or bad stories about ICE, or a war, or a combination) or expanded media coverage abroad, or both.  Another force that could stymie growth is competition from other nations, notably Canada and various European countries.  Looking ahead a little, we should anticipate that at some point Chinese higher education will have grown enough to handle more of that nation’s students domestically.

Keep an eye on this one.

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