New International Student Enrollment In U.S. Has Fallen 10% Since 2015

New International Student Enrollment In U.S. Has Fallen 10% Since 2015


New enrollment of international students at U.S. universities declined by more than 10% between the 2015-16 and 2018-2019 academic years, according to a new report. At the same time, the enrollment of international students in other countries, particularly Australia and Canada, has skyrocketed. New immigration restrictions are likely to blame for the poor performance of U.S. universities in attracting international students relative to other countries.

In the 2018-19 academic year, new enrollment of international students at U.S. universities was 269,383, compared to 300,743 in 2015-16, a decline of 31,360, or 10.4%, reports the Institute of International Education (IIE) in its just released Open Doors publication.

New enrollment of international students in the United States declined for the third straight year. The only silver lining may be that the decline was smaller in the most recent year covered by the data. New enrollment for international students at U.S. universities fell by 3% between 2015-16 and 2016-17, by 7% between 2016-17 and 2017-18, and by 1% between 2017-18 and 2018-2019.

It does not sound like next year’s report will produce better news. At a November 18, 2019, press event to release the report, IIE reported on a Fall 2019 “snapshot” survey of 500 universities. The survey showed new enrollment of international students at U.S. universities will likely continue to decline.

While it is true the Open Doors report showed the total number of international students in America rose slightly in 2018-2019, that is only due to the continued increase of students on Optional Practical Training (OPT), including the two-year extension for students with degrees in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. Once one removes students working on OPT and STEM OPT from the overall calculations of international students, the data show a decline.

While new enrollment of international students in the United States has declined for three straight years, at universities in Australia the enrollment of international students in higher education increased by 47% between 2015 and 2018, according to Australian government data. Australia has seen significant increases in the number of new international students from China, reports the Wall Street Journal. In 2018, after considering a ban on all Chinese nationals studying in America, the Trump administration limited the duration of visas for Chinese students in certain science and technology fields.

Also in contrast to the U.S. decline in enrolling new international students, Canadian universities have attracted international students at record levels. In 2017, the number of international students in Canada increased by 20%. In 2018, international student enrollment at Canadian universities rose by 16%.

The Trump administration has proposed or implemented measures aimed at making it more difficult for international students to remain in the United States and to work after graduation. Among these measures:

•          U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has issued policy memos – currently blocked by a court injunction – that could cause many international students who unknowingly violate their immigration status to be barred from the United States for 10 years.

•          Over the past two years, USCIS has denied H-1B petitions at a historically high rate. Obtaining an H-1B visa is typically the only practical way for an international student to work long term in the United States.

•          The Trump administration has proposed rescinding a rule that allows the spouses of H-1B visa holders to work.

•          The administration has placed on the regulatory agenda a rule, if it is issued, that will restrict or eliminate the ability of international students to work on Optional Practical Training or STEM OPT after completing their studies. Canada, Australia and other advanced economies make it relatively easy for international students to work after graduation.

At the Open Doors press conference, speakers discussed several benefits of international students. They noted international students contribute over $44 billion a year to the U.S. economy, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, and create more than 458,000 jobs directly or indirectly in the United States, according to NAFSA. International students are also an important source of talent for U.S. companies, particularly in cutting-edge fields.

The current outlook for international students coming to America remains somewhere between mixed and gloomy for U.S. universities. While many U.S. educators consider it positive that new international student enrollment has not declined even further over the past three years, increased enrollment in other countries show American universities have lost a great deal of ground.


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