US colleges post biggest drop in foreign enrolment in 16 years

Foreigners account for 5.5 per cent of all students enrolled in higher education, according to Open Doors. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - US universities experienced the biggest enrolment drop among international students in 16 years, even before Covid-19 ravaged the globe - a sign of how the Trump administration's immigration policies have hurt American higher education.

Attendance slid 1.8 per cent in the 2019-20 academic year to 1.08 million, according to the Open Doors report released on Monday (Nov 16) by the non-profit Institute of International Education. That's the third-biggest drop in the report's almost 70-year history.

"This is largely driven by the unwelcoming message" from the federal government under President Donald Trump, said Professor Donald Heller, an education lecturer at the University of San Francisco.

The decline is certain to be much bigger in the current academic year as the pandemic curbed international travel and visa issuance. Data this month from the National Clearinghouse Research Centre shows that undergraduate and graduate enrolment declined 15 per cent and 7.8 per cent, respectively, for the fall semester.

Colleges have expressed alarm about international admissions for most of Mr Trump's presidency, saying it has discouraged foreign students from attending US schools, once viewed as the platinum standard of higher education. The administration's policies and proposals are prompting them to consider other destinations.

A measure of the economic benefits that foreign students bring to the US fell for the first time in the more than two decades that it has been tracked by Nafsa: Association of International Educators.

Such students contributed US$38.7 billion (S$52.1 billion) to the US economy in 2019-20, down from almost US$41 billion a year earlier, according to the trade group.

"What immigrants contribute to this country in terms of talent, energy and economics really fell flat with this administration," said Ms Rachel Banks, Nafsa's senior director for public policy and legislative strategy.

"That's one of the hopeful things with a change in administration."

President-elect Joe Biden has promised to reverse many of Mr Trump's policies, including some of his immigration rules.

Foreigners account for 5.5 per cent of all students enrolled in higher education, according to Open Doors. In addition to the diverse cultures they bring to campus, they're also attractive to US colleges because many pay full price. Prof Heller said schools now may need to offer tuition discounts to continue attracting them.

Enrolment at US universities for students from Saudi Arabia tumbled 16.5 per cent, the most of any country, primarily because of changes to that government's scholarship programme, according to the Open Doors report.

Saudi Arabia isn't subject to Mr Trump's travel ban, yet the policy probably contributed to the enrolment declines from that nation, Prof Heller said.

"Students from predominantly Muslim countries are going to be taking a second look at the US and asking if this is the place they want to be," he said.

China remained the top country of origin during the last school year with 373,000 students, an increase of 0.8 per cent from the previous year, or 36 per cent of the total.

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