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 300,743 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 fell each year for five consecutive years, reversing what had been a decade-long trend of growth for every degree type.

The COVID-19 pandemic drastically accelerated these declines, with new international student enrollments for the 2020-2021 school year plunging by as more than 45% from the previous year. New enrollments began to return to pre-pandemic levels in 2021-2022, but future trends remain uncertain.

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 initial downturns in enrollments followed harsh rhetoric and the implementation of restrictive immigration policies from the Trump Administration, including various travel bans, proposed changes to the public charge rule, threats to end the OPT program, restrictions on high-skilled visa programs, and more.

From 2016 to 2020 (before the COVID-19 pandemic), new enrollments to U.S. institutions of higher education among foreign-born students had fallen by roughly 8% overall (nearly 50% if 2020-2021 school year is included), and the student population began to shrink. The downturn 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 reported that U.S. federal policies and rhetoric on immigration are discouraging prospective students from enrolling in American schools.

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

The full decline in international enrollment at U.S. schools has been somewhat masked by the increasing number of individuals who remain in the U.S. after graduation to take part in OPT. While international enrollment totals at U.S. schools continued to increase through 2018, this was mostly due to the fact that an increasing number of students were staying on OPT; the number of actual new enrollments, meanwhile, was shrinking. Excluding students on OPT, total international student enrollment at U.S. colleges and universities shrank by 5% from 2015 to 2019.

Comparing U.S. enrollment changes to trends in other countries, particularly keeping in mind that these countries are not counting as many post-graduate individuals in the workforce as part of their total enrollment, it appears that, as international enrollments at U.S. universities slow and shrink, other countries’ enrollments have seen a significant boost. Australia’s international enrollment grew by 66% from 2015 to 2019 and Canada’s international student enrollment grew by 73% over the same period.

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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