There are about a million international students in the United States, and according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, these students contributed $35 billion to the U.S. economy in 2015.
Why do so many international students enroll in American colleges and universities?
Dr. Yingyi Ma, director of Asian/Asian American studies and an associate professor in sociology at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, says that international students have multifaceted hopes and aspirations, and they look at American higher education not just as a pathway for their careers but also value it from a human development point of view.
“They value American credentials,” she says. “They think higher education in the U.S. is the best.”
International student enrollment
Between 2010 and 2015, the total domestic enrollment in graduate programs declined by 1.1 percent, says Dr. Rahul Choudaha, CEO of DrEducation, LLC, a higher education consulting and research firm.
“In contrast, the total international enrollment in graduate programs increased by 6.2 percent in the same period,” he says.
The decline is even sharper for engineering programs. “Between 2010 and 2015, domestic enrollment for engineering declined by 0.2 percent, in contrast to an increase of 8.3 percent for international students,” Choudaha says.
A survey conducted by Intead and FPP EDU Media of 40,000 international students prior to the 2016 presidential election indicated that 60 percent of respondents said they were less likely to pursue higher education in the United States if Donald J. Trump won.
Whether this hypothetical concern will translate to a real drop in international enrollments in the near future is an especially relevant question for institutions with large international student populations, such as the University of Washington (UW), where 18 percent of freshmen students are foreign-born.
Because international students pay three times as much as local students, UW is able to fully fund a quarter of all students, based on financial need. Enrollment of international students is especially high in computer science and engineering fields and in graduate programs; for instance, 42 percent of graduate students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology are foreign-born.
A recent survey of 250 U.S. universities and colleges conducted by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, NAFSA: Association of International Educators and three other organizations shows that 39 percent of schools have seen a decline in applications from international students.
The highest decline has been from applicants from the Middle East, including Iran, which ranks 11th on the list of countries sending students to U.S. campuses. But undergrad applications from China and India, which together account for about 50 percent of all international students in the United States, have also declined in almost a quarter of schools surveyed.
In an interview with Diverse, Dr. Tim Anderson, dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, acknowledges that President Trump’s executive order on immigration, against which there is a temporary restraining order, may have an impact on international student enrollment.
“We are concerned that international students in general may feel that they are not welcome in our community, thus discouraging them from applying,” he says.
Ma voices similar concerns. She says that this semester she is working as the director of graduate studies. “I’m in charge of the graduate committee for admissions. I have encountered multiple requests from international students … They are all asking questions related to whether they need to prepare more when they apply for visas. Or is there anything they need to pay attention to in light of the current administration.
“People are very concerned. That is very palpable.”
There is another issue that international students may worry about as they contemplate higher education in the United States. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has indicated that the administration is considering an overhaul of the H1B visa program, which allows American companies to hire foreign workers, as part of a broader immigration reform.
“As the prospects of gaining work experience through Optional Practical Training (OPT) and H-1B visa become more difficult, many international students will be discouraged to study in the U.S.,” says Choudaha.
OPT authorizes international students to work in the United States for up to 12 months in their area of study, and more recently this was extended to 36 months in the case of STEM students.
“Many Indian students will be deterred and discouraged by the [Trump] administration’s move of making it more difficult for gaining work experience in the U.S.,” Choudaha says.
Ma acknowledges that she is curious to see what the Open Doors data, which measures international student enrollment in American universities and colleges, will look like when it’s released next year.
Meanwhile, Canada has taken several active steps to become an attractive destination for international students, such as changing its electronic immigration-selection system so that it is easier for international students to become citizens.
Not surprisingly, and corresponding with the decline in applications at some U.S. institutions, several Canadian universities have seen an increase in applications from international students. The University of Toronto reported a 20 percent increase in international undergraduate applications in the last one year, and other Canadian universities have reported a similar spike.
However, not all U.S. schools report a downward trend in international enrollments. According to Maria-Vittoria Walker, assistant director for international admission at Florida Institute of Technology, which has the highest percentage of international students of all schools in the country (33 percent according to U.S. News & World Report), the school has experienced only a negligible decline of 1.3 percent in international applications this year.
“Most of the applicants who are not accepting our admission offer are due to financial reasons; none have stated that it is due to anything else,” she explains in an email to Diverse.
In any case, several university presidents and deans of colleges are worried. When President Trump’s second executive order barring citizens from six Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States for 90 days was announced, Harvard President Drew Faust said during her remarks to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences: “We face a very real risk that students and scholars from all corners of the globe may no longer see Harvard and other U.S. universities as attractive places to pursue their studies. This would have grave consequences not only for higher education but for the country as a whole.”
“American higher education is one of the most effective soft powers of the country … and international students are potentially cultural ambassadors for the United States,” says Ma. “I think the policies of the current administration to make it difficult for international students to come here, for international students to get jobs, makes it a lose-lose situation for international students and for the American economy.”
Given how high the stakes are, it is not surprising that 48 university presidents have signed a second amicus brief outlining the impact of President Trump’s second executive order on immigration, which was submitted to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit on March 31, prior to oral arguments that will be held on May 8.
The brief states: “The Order threatens amici’s ability to attract the best students, faculty, staff, and scholars from around the world, and thus directly affects amici’s ability to pursue their missions.”