Fewer foreign students are coming to US: Survey

Experts cited an uncertain social and political climate as part of the reason for the decline in foreign enrollment into US colleges.
Experts cited an uncertain social and political climate as part of the reason for the decline in foreign enrollment into US colleges.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - The first new college class since the election of Donald Trump has arrived on campus, and new numbers confirm what the higher education industry had feared: Fewer foreign students are coming to the United States.

The number of newly arriving international students declined an average 7 per cent in fall 2017, with 45 per cent 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.

Experts cited an uncertain social and political climate in the United States as part of the reason for the decline in enrollment.

"It's a mix of factors," said Rajika Bhandari, head of research for the institute, which collects data on international students in cooperation with the State Department.

"Concerns around the travel ban had a lot to do with concerns around personal safety based on a few incidents involving international students, and a generalized concern about whether they're safe."

Another reason for the decline is increasing competition from countries like Canada, Britain and Australia, said Allan E. Goodman, president of the institute.

The figures released Monday (Nov 13) also included final numbers for 2016-2017, which show robust international enrollment, with a record 1.08 million international students in the United States, an increase of 85 per cent from a decade earlier.

Much of the record was driven by 175,000 students who have remained in the United States after completing their degrees, in internship-type programs known as "optional practical training."

The 2016-2017 figures, though, revealed that first-time international students dropped 3 per cent, indicating that the decline had begun before Trump took office.

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 US$39 billion (S$53 billion) into the US economy each year.

Particularly hard hit are campuses in the Midwest, according to the institute.

At the University of Iowa, overall international enrollment this fall was 3,564, down from 4,100 in 2015.

Downing Thomas, the university's dean of international programs, said that some other schools in the Big Ten are also experiencing declines, and none are seeing the rapid increases of the recent past.

While Iowa primarily lost Chinese students, the University of Central Missouri experienced a sharp decline this year in students from India, said Mike Godard, vice provost for enrollment management.

In the fall of 2016, the Warrensburg, Missouri, university had 2,638 international students. This fall it has 944.

Godard said fewer students came from India partly because of a currency crisis in the country, but also because of concerns about the Trump administration's travel ban affecting Muslim countries. India was not on that list, but Godard said many of the university's Indian students were from Muslim areas of the country and were concerned about the ban.

"Although India wasn't listed as one of the countries, certainly feeling welcome and safe and all those things is important," he said. "It would be naive to say that wasn't a contributing factor."

Prospective students from India - interviewed shortly after last year's presidential election - have expressed fears about the racial climate in the United States, concerns that might have been heightened after the shooting death in February of an Indian engineer in a suburban Kansas City bar.

A breakdown of declines by country was not yet available for fall 2017.

In fall 2016, the sharpest drops nationally from a year earlier involved students from Brazil and Saudi Arabia, which cut back on funding international scholarships.