International enrollment in American higher ed either declined again or became more training-oriented

The number of international students enrolled in American colleges and universities declined in 2018-2019, according to a new Open Doors report*.  This has significant implications for higher ed.

I’ll summarize the news here, drawing on Elizabeth Redden’s reporting, then add some reflections, especially concerning one odd bit of the report.

(I’ve been tracking this aspect of enrollment for some time: Feb 2019; Oct 2018; Jan 2018)

Here’s the key data point:

The number of international undergraduate students declined by 2.4 percent, the number of international graduate students declined by 1.3 percent and the number of international nondegree students declined by 5 percent.


A separate “snapshot” survey of fall 2019 enrollments across more than 500 institutions released today by IIE likewise reports an average 0.9 percent decline in new enrollments continuing this fall.

This continues a trend going back one or two years.

international students 2013-2019_Open DoorsThat’s a top level summary.  Naturally for a big, sprawling, and dis-integrated sector like American higher ed, things play out unevenly by geography and institutional type:

About 51 percent of institutions responding to the snapshot survey reported decreases in new international enrollments, and 42 percent reported increases, with the remaining 7 percent reporting no change. Over all, research universities reported increases in new international enrollments this fall, while master’s institutions and institutions in the Midwest reported decreases.


International enrollments increased by 1.2 percent at doctoral universities and by 2.1 percent at baccalaureate colleges, while master’s level-institutions reported a 1.3 percent decline. The biggest drop was at associate-level institutions, where total international enrollments fell by 8.3 percent in 2018-19.

Enrollment in STEM and business continued to dominate, with some tweaks:

math/computer science surpassed business/management [w]as the second-most-popular field for international students, after engineering. The number of students studying math and computer science increased by 9.4 percent, while the number studying business fell by 7.1 percent. (International enrollments in engineering decreased by 0.8 percent.)

Which nations are most highly represented in this enrollment picture?

international students by nation_2017-2019_Open Doors

Two countries of origin continue to dominate incoming student populations, as China and India together “account for more than half (52.1 percent) of all international students studying in the U.S.”

Meanwhile, interesting developments from other nations:

[T]he number of students from the No. 3-sending country, South Korea, declined by 4.2 percent, a continuation of a long-term trend driven in part by demographic changes and the development of South Korea’s own higher education system. The academic year 2018-19 represented the eighth straight year of declines in South Korean students at U.S. colleges.


The number of students from No. 4 country Saudi Arabia decreased by 16.5 percent in 2018-19, following on a 15.5 percent decline the year before and a 14.2 percent decrease the year before that. The number of students from Saudi Arabia has contracted sharply as the government has scaled back support for its large-scale overseas scholarship program.

Yet at the same time the number of international students in the US pursuing learning in another form of post-secondary education actually rose, according to Open Doors:

the total number of international students in the U.S. actually increased slightly, by 0.05 percent, due to a 9.6 percent increase in the number of international students participating in optional practical training, a program that allows international students to stay in the U.S. to work for up to three years after graduating while staying on their student visas.

To be honest, I don’t know much about these training programs.  Is optional practical training (OPT) (Wikipedia; federal site) taught by accredited colleges and universities?  Do students take them at campuses other than the ones they enrolled in for other classwork?  What topics are taught?  Wikipedia claims that the federal government especially encourages STEM fields for OPT study. (relevant list) Homeland Security describes OPT thusly: “one type of work permission available for eligible F-1 students. It allows students to get real-world work experience related to their field of study.”  Which sounds like apprenticeships.  That’s also the tone of this US News article.  Does OPT essentially mean work, and not study?

Well, putting these OPT and non-OPT numbers together as Open Doors does leads to a very interesting picture.  There are many more non-training than training students (I’m not sure of overlap), but the latter’s gains outweigh the former’s shrinkage.  Check out this table:

So, overall, why are these changes happening?

“Trump” is a good single-word answer, of course.  His Muslim ban and attitudes towards Latinx immigrants cover part of the international student market, but also cast a chilling effect on the whole.

School shootings must play a role, especially given their high levels of media coverage.

The leader of IIE (which produces this Open Doors report) offers a different reason, one which won’t be unfamiliar to Americans:

“Everywhere I travel, talking with parents and students, the No. 1 concern they have is about cost. American higher education is expensive — it is more expensive than other countries. I’d say there’s always a mix of factors that go into deciding who will come, where they’ll come, where they’ll go, but overwhelmingly that is what is most on parents’ minds,” said Allan E. Goodman, the president and CEO of IIE.

Why does all of this matter?  Several reasons.

First, some colleges and universities count on international students for tuition dollars, since they tend to pay full freight.  Losing them is a blow to revenue – when campuses are already financially stressed.  A campus losing international students will have to make up the money somewhere.

Second, international students can add to campus population diversity.  Fewer of the former can shrink the latter.

Third, international students contribute to the US economy.  Open Doors estimates that amount as about $44.7 billion.  Chinese students alone add $14,913,000,000 to American coffers.

Fourth, if we include OPT students, there is still a downward trend visible in rates of increase.  Look at the rightmost column here, and watch the growth figure shrink steadily over the past five years:

international enrollment 2009-2019_Open Doors

Fifth, if we don’t include OPT?  It depends on how we view Open Doors’ inclusion of this category.  If we view OPT as training per se, then it’s good that America has that attraction to learners worldwide… but this isn’t a good thing for those who distinguish between training and education (and favoring the latter).  If we deem OPT to be essentially work, rather than graduate study, and if it isn’t formal graduate study, then it might not make sense to count internationals pursuing it as grad students.  If that is correct, then we’re just looking at a continued decline in actual international grad student numbers.  Which is bad news for America as a whole, and for US higher ed in particular.

*That’s only a link to the press release.  The report isn’t publicly available yet: “The full report will be available in early 2020.”  They do a good job of webbing up some data and graphics here.

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5 Responses to International enrollment in American higher ed either declined again or became more training-oriented

  1. Ed Webb says:

    As I understand it (which is not as far as I would wish), OPT is essentially working or, at best, on-the-job training. Its emphasis on STEM has effects on the choices some international students make as to their undergraduate major, knowing that their chances of extending their visa after graduation are far higher if they study, say, mathematics and computer science than if they study a social science or humanities subject.

  2. Sowmyan says:

    As a Indian, senior citizen, and father of two students who went to have their higher education abroad and stayed on to work, I have the following to say. Within India we consider the students going abroad for higher education as ‘brain drain’. Perhaps there is a 70% probability they do not return back to their motherland. You should read the OPT data with the H1B visa offered to those who studied higher education in US (perhaps around 60,000), to know the proportion.

    OPT is essentially on the job learning by the individual on their own. There is no formal course offered for them by any university. Even the companies who provide the opportunity under the OPT program for apprenticeship may not have any formal program which is different from their routine in house training. For them it may be an opportunity to see a future potential employee whom they can offer a formal job under the H1B program.

    While the ultimate objective of these students is to work in high technology anywhere in the world, they would perhaps prefer to study in the country where the follow up employment opportunity is available. In recent years the attraction towards going to US for further studies has declined in India. Students are going to Germany and Australia more enthusiastically.

    Population, economic development, and opportunities in high technology sector in their own country are the key drivers for the students. In a country such as India, the population being high, and the development level being low, resulted in a shortage of high technology employment opportunity within the country. So for students targeting high technology as their work domain, the opportunities were abroad. This situation is changing. High technology work is increasing in India, if not as a result of demand for the country’s consumption, as an opportunity spilling over to India in the form of outsourced work from developed countries. Hence the relative standard of life for these millennial within the country are comparable or even better to those who work abroad. At this stage, the drive for those who continue to use education, and OPT as a route to find high tech employment in developed countries is shifting to the quality of the work experience. If it is low end, mundane, the decline would be faster.

    The H1B having become a lottery is a major damper. It means despite having the requisite talent and even a sponsor, some one may not get to realize their personal dream. Every developed country prefers students who have done the higher education in their country. So rather than study in US and go to work in Australia, they might as well go to study in Australia and get to work there. Countries such as Germany, and Australia are very actively marketing their higher education program.

    The signals from USA are very confusing. If immigration is a problem and as your President says, it increases crime etc, and you want to discourage it, the talk is perhaps on illegal immigration, or on immigrants with low level skills. But the treatment to high skilled people is also apparently based on the same level of phobia. For example, there is a country level cap on H1Bs getting a green card. Every country can only have a max of some 7% or so of the total green cards on offer. However with a large number of applicants from India, the country cap of 7% results in higher rejection rate among Indians. The wait list has apparently gone to as high as 15 to 20 years. There are even cases of people who moved decades ago getting their children deported back to India since the parents did not get a green card. This may be India specific. For a smaller neighboring nation such as SriLanka, the situation may be quite fine. If some one was talented enough, they would get their green card within 5 years and they would settle down.

    The increasingly concerning school shootings are not as alarming as shooting of individuals that also happens. School shootings have been the act of deranged people. They had not discriminated on any single community. But targeted killings of individuals have often been based on ethnic hatred. These individual events may not be known widely within USA. But every such incidence is a significant story back here in the Indian news media.

    As India becomes more developed, this desire to move abroad to be able to get to work on meatier technology will reduce. Such work would be available here. About 30 years ago, education was a restricted opportunity in India. This domain liberalized and private sector education has boomed significantly. Now I see the more enterprising educational institutions tying up with universities broad to add an international flavor to their offering. It may be possible for US educational institutions catering to higher education opening India campuses. You can bring in the talented faculty and experience of structuring courses relevant to the emerging developmental needs. With campuses in India, the cost of education pertaining to the living expenses can come down. This may even enable you to bring students from other poorer countries who can not afford the high cost of education in USA to these Indian campuses.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Sowmyan, thank you for another rich comment. I appreciate your taking the time to explore this topic, as well as to share your personal story.

      Very good points, especially on Germany and Australia, targeted killings, the difficulty in getting into the US, and changes for Indian youth.

      How do you see the Modi administration changing things? I know there is an education reform commission at work.

      • Sowmyan says:

        Bryan, I may be a biassed person on the new initiatives. The education commission is expected to be a replacement for the university grants commission. That means a grant giving role is being removed and substituted with a quality improvement role. Some years back the Indian education system at the school level was introduced to Bloom’s taxonomy concepts. This was an initiative to push schools to move away from rote learning towards better conceptual understanding. Modi’s more passionate early introduction was his ‘skill India’ program that was launched along with a ‘make in India’ program. This was aimed at improving the skill of artisans.

        In India parents may be a major influence on what their children should study. This is often based on preference to domains where employment is more gainful. Aptitude and inherent skills of the students may get compromised in this process. It also means new and emerging fields may not find support till the demand is seen as evident. The explosion in availability of ‘seats’ is on paper, since the institutions vary significantly in their infrastructure and faculty quality. Education had become a business a few decades ago when shortage of ‘seats’ was driving up fees that could be charged and government approval for new institutions was opened up. I believe a large number of politicians entered the business of education. One may also say a number of educationists also entered politics to influence a liberal environment. The biggest concern I have is that despite the ‘seat’ count, employability is still poor. I guess the lack of emphasis in Bloom’s outcomes in the past is one reason. The other reason is social aspiration. With a boom in availability of seats, an government policy support, a large number of socially backward groups have been able to enter higher education. As first generation children without adequate support at home, many are struggling. It may take at least one generation for these new beneficiaries grow a new generation and support them in early education. Even within the families of not so educated households, education has a significant esteem value, even if it does not guarantee economic outcomes.

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