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International student enrollments have dropped and long term trends are worrying

As competing nations ramp up recruitment of highly-skilled immigrants, America is losing its appeal as the top destination for global talent

International student enrollment numbers are a helpful metric by which to understand how attractive the U.S. looks to foreign-born scholars. Recent trends are troubling, suggesting that America is losing its appeal as the top destination for foreign-born students.

From 2006 to 2015, enrollment of foreign-born students increased every year, and were growing at an increasing rate, peaking at 119,262 new enrollments for the 2015-2016 school year. In 2016, however, that growth bottomed out, and new enrollments of foreign-born students fell for the first time in decades. In fact, the number of new enrollments has fallen each year for the past three years, reversing what had been a decade-long trend of growth for every degree type.

As immigration policies tighten, international student interest wanes

While many factors influence enrollment rates, higher education administrators and experts agree that U.S. immigration policy is a significant driver. Research has shown that immigration policy – including the ability to work legally and secure permanent residency – makes a significant impact on the choice to come and to stay made by international students and foreign-born skilled workers alike. The continuing downturn in enrollments have followed the Trump Administration’s harshly restrictive immigration policies such as the “travel ban,” “public charge” rule, “unlawful presence” policy, and more.

Since 2016, new enrollments to U.S. institutions of higher education among foreign-born students have fallen by more than 10% overall and the student population has begun to shrink. The downturn over the years 2016-2018, after what had been fairly consistent growth in the years before, suggests a significant change influenced by new factors, and in fact, students and higher education institutions report that U.S. federal policies and rhetoric on immigration are discouraging prospective students from enrolling in American schools.


India and China are two of the top sending countries for international enrollments to the United States, and the downward trend in enrollments is particularly pronounced for students coming from these two countries. Looking at overlapping two-year increments, we found that growth in enrollments for graduate students from China slowed significantly from 2016 to 2018, while enrollments for graduate students from India have completely reversed and are in fact declining. (Unfortunately, the IIE Open Doors report does not provide data on academic level and place of origin before 2015).


As U.S. numbers fall, competing countries on the rise

Comparing U.S. enrollment changes to trends in other countries, it appears that, as international enrollments at U.S. universities begin to flatline, other countries’ enrollments are growing at increasing rates. Australia’s international enrollment has grown consistently at around 20% for the past few years, and, Canada’s international student population grew by nearly 40% from 2016-2018, a 13 percentage point increase from preceding years. Interestingly, this is the same amount by which the U.S. percent change decreased over the same period. There’s no reason to believe this is a one-for-one substitution, but Canada’s enrollment rates growing by the same amount at which the U.S. is declining does suggest they are doing something right to appeal to international students.

In recent years competing nations have been
deliberately modernizing their immigration policies and increasing outreach to foreign-born students and workers. For example, the Canadian immigration system has specific pathways intended to guide international students to permanent residency. Canada offers graduates a post-graduate work permit, not limited to any specific field, for up to three years. The Canadian “point system” for permanent residency rewards Canadian education and in-country work experience, giving international graduates a stronger case in applying. In contrast, neither U.S. education nor work experience (such as time spent working on OPT) factor at all into the criteria to qualify for permanent residency in the U.S. China has also been stepping up efforts to attract graduates to return home after studying abroad.

To keep the future here, fix the broken and outdated immigration system

Congress should establish a direct pathway to permanent status for Master’s and PhD graduates from U.S. colleges and universities who wish to stay, particularly those in STEM fields, along with a statutory post-completion work option.

America can no longer take for granted that the world’s best and brightest will continue to pursue their education here. In order to stay competitive in the global race for talent, the United States (and Congress in particular) must address the challenges in the legal immigration system driving prospective students to choose other countries over the U.S.

While the OPT program provides a “bridge” for some graduates, the U.S. should provide immigration alternatives to recruit and retain talent. Too many students find it impossible to secure a pathway to stay in the country after they graduate, and now more students are increasingly choosing not to even try in the first place. In order to continue to draw high numbers of talented students to its shores, the U.S. needs to catch up to competing nations and provide surety to these students that they will have a future in the country after graduation.

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