Trend vs. Hiccup: Decreased International Student Growth in US

Political climate, soaring costs and post-grad visa availability have prompted more students abroad to think twice before studying in the United States.

7 minutes
By: Chris Kudialis
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Many international students are thinking twice about investing their time and money in U.S. universities, due to a variety of financial and political reasons. The percent growth of international students studying at U.S. universities has slowly declined since the 2014-2015 school year, according to the IIE’s Open Doors reporting, with negative growth during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The figures are expected to rebound when the 2022 report comes out in the coming weeks, to account for many international borders reopening and 99% of U.S. schools returning to in-person classes. But higher-ed professionals in both consulting and admissions say there is more to the story.

The average tuition cost for schools in the U.S News and World Report’s top 440 nationally ranked private and public universities has climbed 30% during the past decade and more than 130% during the past 20 years. H1 visas, which the U.S. government issues to foreigners each year for work in ‘specialty occupation’ fields, have been capped at the same number since 1990 despite a surging number of applicants.

“Safety has also been a big concern,” said Becky Konowicz, Dean of Undergraduate Admission at Santa Clara University. “Gun violence in America is making international news all of the time, and the racially motivated violence against immigrant populations — particularly Asian and Hispanic people — are big turn-offs.”

Konowicz spent most of her career overseeing international student admissions before landing Santa Clara’s top spot for all admissions. She called the current U.S. climate “a heavy burden” for young people abroad wanting to advance their education here. And she is not alone.

“This existing trend was exacerbated during the pandemic when the acquisition of student visas became more difficult in many nations, even when students were looking to come to the U.S.,” said Rob Bielby, managing director at Huron, a publicly traded consultancy based in Chicago. “The international perception of the U.S. political and social climate made the prospect of sending students here less desirable.”

The Trump Effect

Media coverage of Donald Trump gave the rest of the world an impression the former U.S. president and his America First agenda were anti-immigrant, interviewed education experts said. An infamous quote from Trump’s 2015 campaign announcement called illegal immigrants from Mexico criminals and rapists while accusing them of bringing drugs into the country. Trump also implemented a travel ban on people from six Muslim-majority countries early in his presidency, and reportedly made disparaging remarks about immigrants from Haiti and Nigeria. Coupled with the administration’s decision to change the HB-1 visa process, international students began looking toward other countries for their higher education needs. 

Whether the former U.S. president intended to be unwelcoming to international students is still up for debate. But international perception that America was no longer as immigrant-friendly as it was during prior administrations likely deterred thousands of would-be overseas students from studying here.

“If the perception is that it’s difficult to get a U.S. visa, potential students will look elsewhere,” explained Chris Johnson, partner at Phoenix-based Petit World Consulting. “Even if that’s not the reality. The perception is often enough to discourage many students just enough that they design not to spend the time and money to go through the process.”

Johnson, who also serves as Arizona State University’s director of international undergraduate recruitment but was authorized only to speak on behalf of his private-sector consulting gig, added that tensions between the U.S. and other countries can often lead to a drop in international students from those individual countries.

Soaring tuition costs have forced international students and their families to pay closer attention to post-graduation job placement and career opportunities, which tends to benefit universities with international name-recognition.

Feast or Famine

The nationwide statistics from IIE only tell part of the story, according to education professionals. Although international enrollment for the entire country’s higher-ed institutions as a whole are not growing as fast in recent years, it has been more ‘feast or famine’ for schools at the individual level.

Johnson said top-ranked U.S. schools have continued to enjoy their pick of the litter — even during the pandemic. Soaring tuition costs have forced international students and their families to pay closer attention to post-graduation job placement and career opportunities, which tends to benefit universities with international name-recognition. 

“Your Harvards, Princetons and top public schools have always been attractive options because of their proven track records and global prestige,” Johnson said. “They’ve had no problem continuing to attract students from abroad and even seen meaningful growth during recent years across certain majors.”

On the flip side, small liberal arts universities, directional schools and those considered below the top tier of globally ranked institutions are seeing more drastic downturns in international student interest — mirroring a trend in many of those schools’ overall enrollment tallies. Schools without brand-name cachets and lacking track records for helping international students land high-end career opportunities after graduation face the greatest hurdles.

“The focus on return-on-investment has spread from the grad level to the undergrad level, and folks are wanting really clear evidence of your outcome,” Johnson explained. “They don’t want to just hear the aggregate placement rate; they want to know what the international placement rate is and, ideally, the placement rate for graduates from their country in their major. That’s challenging because a lot of institutions just don’t have the institutional wherewithal to collect and monitor that.”

Schools build their international recruiting on reputation and word-of-mouth, added Huron’s Rob Bielby. Schools that set their current international students up for success after graduation are more likely to reap the rewards of those alumni sharing their experiences with others.

A Cyclical Trend

The trend of decreased growth in international student enrollment might already be past us. Then again, it might just be getting started — depending on who you ask. 

A recent IIE report suggests COVID-19’s dent in the overseas student population is quickly being corrected as life returns to normal. Whether or not continued freezes in tuition prices across several universities coupled with a Joe Biden presidency will help annual international student increases return to pre-2015 highs remains to be seen. Biden’s administration in January expanded J-1 visa access for international exchange students in both grad and undergrad STEM programs, while adding nearly two dozen new qualifying fields of study for STEM Optional Practical Training (OPT) visas.  

Bielby said his firm saw international application volumes for fall 2023 recover for a large majority of institutions, thanks to opportunities for students to live again on campus and enjoy in-person access to their courses.

“Student visas have become more readily available and the college-going experience in the U.S. has normalized again, which is reviving interest,” Bielby said. 

Johnson called the pre-COVID tapering of year-on-year growth a cyclical trend, pointing to historical numbers that show gradual cycles in annual overseas enrollment. At least six major cycles have taken place since the IIE began tracking international college student populations in the U.S., back in 1948.

“We’ve seen downturns before and they’ve always been followed by upturns,” he explained. “Some of it is structural and some of it is temporal in that it’s tied to other factors.”

All three interviewed experts agreed the beneficial partnership between international students and U.S. universities will encourage both parties to adapt to the other’s evolving demands. That means a healthy percentage of schools will begin or continue to invest in international recruitment for the foreseeable future. And with competition for OPT, OPT STEM and H1-B visas still increasing, the challenges for universities will go beyond just convincing students the hefty tuition price tag is worth it.

“We need international students because of the diverse perspective they bring,” said Santa Clara University’s Becky Konowicz. “We want it to be woven holistically into our university’s fabric because this is today’s world.”

Chris Kudialis

Chris Kudialis

Reporter

Chris Kudialis is a veteran reporter and editor with experience covering some of the world’s most significant political and sporting events for a number of the country’s largest news outlets. His regular beats include education, cannabis legalization and NBA basketball.

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