The U.S. still attracts record numbers of international students, but the sticker shock of college tuition and negative political rhetoric is slowing down the robust rate of application seen over the past decade.
The U.S. remains the top destination in the world for more than 1 million visiting students — hosting more than double the next country, the United Kingdom. But while 1.5 percent more students studied in the U.S. last year, the rate of new enrollments — specifically, undergraduate students — declined by 6.6 percent, a trend first seen the preceding year, according to the Institute for International Education’s (IIE) annual Open Doors report.
“These relationships are critical in a competitive marketplace,” said Marie Royce, assistant secretary of state for Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, bringing $42 billion and 450,000 jobs to the U.S. economy.
But tuition costs — around $20,000 a year for public institutions to more than $70,000 for elite private universities — make the U.S. look less attractive to international students, as global competition increases, educators said.
Sixty-five percent of international students rely on “international funding sources” said IIE spokesperson Catherine Morris, “with well over half of all students (59 percent) funded through their own personal and family funding.”
Among undergraduates, 82 percent rely on personal and family funding. Most are not eligible for financial aid at U.S. schools.
Over the past 30 years, said Rajika Bhandari, research and strategy senior adviser at IIE, costs increased 213 percent at U.S. public institutions and 130 percent at private U.S. institutions.
Foreign countries have taken note and are attracting students with far less expensive tuition and pathways to permanent residency or citizenship.
“There are real competitive countries out there. It used to be Britain and America,” said Allan Goodman, IIE’s president and former executive dean of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. “Governments, as part of their international policy, want more students from there and here. The U.S. has real competition.”
“Canada,” said Moninder "Holly" Singh, senior director of Arizona State University’s International Students and Scholars Center, “they’ve done an amazing job at taking the market from us. It doesn’t seem obvious in the U.S. ... They are creating pathways that are simpler than us.”
Once an international student graduates in Canada, they can get permanent residency status after working for one year. “Here,” Singh said, “we have people from China and India who might be here 15 years before they can get that.”
Pathways to citizenship are important to international students whose home countries have not reached the same quality of life and excellence in education. Many students — the best and brightest immigrants from their countries — want to work in the U.S. before returning home. Or they want to stay in the U.S., where freedom, excellence and innovation have been hallmarks of the economy.
China and India send nearly half of all international students, 363,341 and 196,271, respectively, to the U.S. A currency correction in India two years ago wiped out funding sources for many students there hoping to head to the U.S. And Chinese students, who dominate the population of international students, report growing discontent with paying full tuition next to subsidized domestic students.
“The current financial model for higher education isn’t sustainable,” offered Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. “We can’t raise tuitions and have burgeoning loan debts” for international or domestic students.
The Open Doors report is “really an urgent call for colleges and universities to take a comprehensive look at the way we deliver education,” said AACU’s Pasquerella. “I worry that some institutions are relying on old models and are so tuition-driven, and that we need to look at alternative sources of revenue. It requires us to be innovators.”
In addition to costs, international students and their families tell educators they are daunted by political rhetoric, feeling unwelcome and wondering if the U.S. is a friendly and safe place to study. The Trump administration’s immigration policies have limited student visas and how they are administered.
“We became complacent that we’re a preferred destination,” said Robin Lerner, president and CEO of the Texas International Education Consortium, “and we suffered from an over reliance on a number of countries where governments were funding large numbers of students” like Saudi Arabia and Brazil.
However, Lerner added, “while there are many factors that enter a student’s decision-making, political rhetoric that makes students feel unwelcome or unsafe does not help.”
Safety issues, too, trouble international applicants, educators said, who ask if their children will be safe in the U.S.
“If you look at the national news, why, goodness, would you send your child to the U.S.?” Pasquerella asked. “Students killed in California and in Florida. Who would encourage people to come here under these circumstances?”
Anti-immigrant comments are “inflammatory,” said University of Southern California’s Timothy Brunold, dean of admissions. He said he travels internationally often, speaking with prospective students and their families.
“I am endlessly questioned about this. 'Will my son or daughter be welcomed in the United States? Will they get a visa, but will it be taken away? Will there be an opportunity to work in the U.S. Or will there be a limit?'” Brunold said.
“Yes, we are hearing that, too,” said University of Colorado-Boulder's Natalie Koster Mikulak, associate director of international admissions.
The uncertainty and future of American immigration policy daunts some students, who worry about how and how quickly visa regulations will change. Going home for a family event — like a relative’s illness or a celebration — is sometimes skipped for fear of leaving the country.
While experts said the dip in new enrollments can be attributed to a mixture of factors, the slide in numbers coincides with the so-called travel ban that limited immigration from seven mostly Muslim countries in early 2017. When ordered, President Donald Trump said it was a national security measure.
The orders had a chilling effect on international student enthusiasm for the U.S., experts said. If a student’s visa is rescinded before graduation, they might have to start over in another country.
Educators pushed back.
“It is vital to our economy and the national interest that we continue to attract the best students, scientists, engineers and scholars,” the Association of American Universities stated in a January 2017. “That is why we have worked closely with previous administrations, especially in the wake of 9/11, to ensure our visa system prevents entry by those who wish to harm us, while maintaining the inflow of talent that has contributed so much to our nation.”
Nearly two years later, the U.S. limits student and exchange visas only to Syria and North Korea, said Laura Stein, visa policy analyst at the Bureau of Consular Affairs last week. Stein said applicants from those countries may apply for a waiver from the presidential proclamation. As of Oct. 31, 2018, she said, 2,072 waivers have been granted.
National security, educators said, is built on sharing American democracy and standards with international students who will carry that positive relationship with them throughout their lives.
“We see time and time again that non-U.S. students come back,” Lerner said. “They send their kids here. … It pays dividends. We need more diplomats.”
“International students studying alongside Americans are a tremendous asset to the United States,” Royce said. “We need to develop leaders in all fields who can take on our toughest challenges. We need people who can find solutions that keep us secure and make us more prosperous. We want to send a message that international education makes us stronger as a country.”
“We may have been the undisputed leader in the world,” said Brunold. “We might be starting to see some cracks in that.”