Photo courtesy: International students of Pittsburg State University, at the Homecoming Parade.

International Student Numbers Dropped Before U.S. Presidential Election

Many have speculated that the political climate in the U.S. is to blame for the decrease of international students in the United States, the latest report shows number dropped even before the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

However, the total of international students in the country still increased. We’ll explain how this is possible.

The Institute of International Education publishes the Open Doors Report, an annual survey of 2,000 colleges and universities about international student enrollment.

This year’s report provides a snapshot of international student enrollment for the 2016-2017 academic year. The report is always one year behind in order to show accurate, total enrollment for institutions.

Below is a summary of the major take-a-ways from the report for 2016-2017 international student numbers:

New International Student Enrollment
Students enrolling for the first time at a U.S. institution in fall 2016
2016-2017: 290,836
2015-2016: 300,743

This shows a decrease of 3.3 percent from the previous year. The last decrease of new international students was back in 2004-2005.

China and India continue to be the top places of origin for international students. Students from China grew by 6.8 percent and India by 12.3 percent.

However, two countries that served as key sources for international students dropped. South Korea fell by 3.8 percent and Saudi Arabia by 14.2 percent. I would also point out Brazil, a country still in the top 10 for places of origin for students, dropped significantly by 32.4 percent.

Top 20 countries of origin for international students during 2016-2017. Courtesy of the Institute of International Education.


However, the top 20 institutions hosting international students all saw an increase in numbers except for the University of Washington and Michigan State University.

Why did the international student numbers still increase?
In 2016-2017, the number of international students increased by 3.4 percent, for a total of 1,078,822.

So how could the number of new students go down, yet the total number of international students in the country increase?

More students participated in optional practical training (OPT), that number grew by about 19 percent. While these individuals have graduated, institutions still claim them to be students for visa purposes. In addition, with the extension of OPT for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) graduates, these students are allowed to work up to three years.

Our Summary
Institutions that have been the most selective and competitive continue to report growth in international student numbers. Institutions that heavily depend on international students for the sake of balancing budgets reported the steepest decline. The fact that numbers started to decline even before the presidential election show there are a variety of factors to consider when justifying numbers of first-year students going down. Some institutions report troubles with the visa application process or visa denials, as well as cost of tuition and fees and competition from other universities in other countries.

I would also add that a decrease in government-sponsored scholarships for students, especially in Saudi Arabia and Brazil, could be attributed to the decrease. Though keep in mind the primary source of funding (60 percent) for international students is personal or family funding, only foreign governments cover funding for 5.7 percent of international students.

There are some things just out of the control of institutions, such as diplomatic relations and budget cuts. Looking at the top countries of origin from the past 15 years, countries have entered and left the top 20, such as Kenya, Russia and Pakistan.

There are mixed reviews on what this data means for the future of international student enrollment in the United States, it may be too early to tell. However, I do believe for the past 10 years institutions have taken a “buffet style” approach when it came to international student recruitment. Meaning no matter where they “ranked” in line, as soon as they got to the buffet station there was still plenty to put on their plate.

Let’s use Saudi Arabia for example. In 2006-2007, the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission to the U.S. (SACM) started receiving more funding to send students to the U.S. Because of this, the country entered the top 20 in 2006-2007 for sending students to the U.S. and tremendously grew in numbers each year for the past decade:

2005-2006: 3,448
2006-2007: 7,886
2007-2008: 9,873
2008-2009: 12,661
2009-2010: 15,810
2010-2011: 22,704
2011-2012: 34,139
2012-2013: 44,566
2013-2014: 53,919
2014-2015: 59,945
2015-2016: 61,287
2016-2017: 52,611

Now considering the several factors I mentioned above, in this particular case the government is now cutting funding and being more particular about which students to send to the U.S. and which universities to have them study, it seems there is nothing left for those universities ranked lower and farther back in the line when they finally reach the buffet station.

If the buffet isn’t as full as it used to be, we may be witnessing the beginning of when institutions in the U.S. really start setting themselves apart when it comes to quality and cost of education, as well as recruitment strategy. I think we’ll be able to draw more conclusions when we see numbers for 2017-2018.

Eron Memaj

Managing Editor, International Student Voice Magazine

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