International Student enrollment growth in the U.S. remains sluggish after hitting its lowest rate in a decade in fall 2017. Now numbers for fall 2018 show that new enrollments of international students, while better than 2017, continue to trend downward.
That news comes from the 2019 Open Doors Report on International Education released by the Institute of International Education and the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. According to the report, the total number of international students enrolled in U.S. colleges fell by 2.1% from fall 2017 to fall 2018.
Overall, the IIE report found more than 1 million international students in the U.S. during the 2018-19 academic year. Of those students, 872,214 were enrolled while another 223,085 were in Optional Practical Training programs. Though the number of enrolled students is down, an increase in OPT participation means an overall increase of international students of 0.5% when slightly rounded up.
Compared with 2017’s record slump, some experts view the numbers from 2018 as an improvement.
“We see this positive trend likely due to the extensive efforts of the U.S. higher education institutions and the efforts they are making to attract and welcome international students to their campuses,” says Mirka Martel, head of research, evaluation and learning at IIE. But she adds: “Overall enrollment numbers – of which new enrollments are a subset – show a mixed picture.”
Why International Student Growth Remains Sluggish
In terms of data, the IIE report doesn’t drill down into individual reasons why international students choose to study elsewhere.
However, IIE president and CEO Allen E. Goodman feels that paying for college is a significant factor in that decision.
“Everywhere I travel, talking with parents and students, the No. 1 concern they have is about cost,” Goodman says. “American higher education is expensive. It is more expensive than other countries. And 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.”
Overall cost is also a factor cited by Juan Camilo Tamayo, a higher educational consultant and founder of Florida-based JCT4Education. Tamayo, who works with international students, says many families want to send their children to the U.S. but can’t afford it.
“The cost keeps going up and up and up, and they’ve been priced out,” Tamayo says.
Similarly, he notes, the strong dollar makes the costs even higher for students from countries with depressed currencies. And visa issues are another concern for families. The latter issue has caught the attention of numerous college presidents, who expressed dismay over visa processing delays and prompted open letters from multiple college presidents this year to government officials addressing the matter.
Tamayo also points to increased competition from other countries for international students. “European universities and world universities are being more aggressive in their recruiting techniques,” he says. “And they’re offering a better or a different cost structure.”
According to a 2017 survey commissioned by Educational Testing Service, the organization behind the TOEFL exam, university officials “are concerned about attracting new international students,” citing “the current U.S. political climate” as a reason for unease over enrollment.
But Kim Lovaas, director of international student services and associate director of international admission at the University of Washington, says the concerns she hears from international students and their families about studying in the U.S. are often around other issues.
“I don’t hear that international students are unwelcome. More than anything, I think we get questions about safety in the U.S. There’s been a lot of gun violence in the last couple of years, and I think that tends to concern families a lot more than anything,” Lovaas says.
Leaving family behind to pursue an education in an unfamiliar country can be an intimidating experience.
“It’s a serious undertaking for a young person to even entertain the thought of leaving their home country and going so far away to a university to be educated,” says Adele C. Brumfield, associate vice chancellor for enrollment management at the University of California—San Diego. “Families don’t take that lightly. There are costs involved. There are cultural challenges and differences.”
Where International Students Are Studying in the U.S.
Though there are more than 4,000 colleges and universities in the U.S. – depending on how those institutions are counted – 70% of international students tend to study at only about 200 schools, says Marie Royce, assistant secretary of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs in the Department of State. Those students are primarily concentrated in Texas, California and New York.
Royce says she wants to see more international students studying at more U.S. institutions, an opinion others share.
“I would encourage students to do a broad and thorough search if they’re looking at the United States, and not just limit their search to the East Coast or the West Coast,” Brumfield says. “There are fabulous institutions throughout the U.S., and they could find a home there if they open up their search early to that possibility.”
While some schools struggle with international enrollment, that isn’t the case at Washington or UC—San Diego. Washington saw a slight dip in international applications from fall 2017 to fall 2018, per U.S. News data, but international student enrollment increased.
The reason, Lovaas explains, is that UW receives far more international student applications than it can accommodate. U.S. News data shows that UW had 9,914 international applications in fall 2018. Likewise, UC—San Diego draws significant attention from international students. UC—San Diego had 19,756 applications from international students in fall 2018, according to U.S. News data.
Where International Students Are Coming From
China and India are once again the top two places of origin for international students in the U.S.
“We are reinforcing the message that we welcome international students,” Royce says. She notes that the State Department has increased recruiting efforts with an emphasis on China, India, Colombia and Brazil – all of which sent more students in fall 2018.
Gains for China and India were modest. The U.S. saw an increase of 1.7% for Chinese students in fall 2018. That brought the total population of Chinese students in the U.S. to 369,548, accounting for 33.7% of all international learners on American campuses.
Meanwhile, India sent 2.9% more students, bringing the total to 202,014, or 18.4% of the total population of international students in the U.S.
No other country comprises more than 5% of the total international student population in the U.S. Of the top 25 places of origin, only Brazil saw a significant spike by percentage, with an increase of 9.8% coming to the U.S.
What to Know About Studying in the U.S.
A resounding theme from colleges and government officials is that international students are welcomed in the U.S.
Political rhetoric aside, colleges want students to know that studying in the U.S. hasn’t changed. Even as some U.S. lawmakers decry OPT for allegedly taking jobs from U.S. graduates, officials stress that the program remains.
“It’s a great time to come to the U.S. for education,” Lovaas says. “Nothing has changed. There is a lot of rhetoric around international students in the U.S., but laws have not changed, visa requirements have not changed, schools have not changed. We’re here and still very welcoming for international students.”