U.S. colleges are bracing for a double whammy in international enrollments over the next year, with some Indian students expected to join their Chinese counterparts in turning away from their goal of earning a degree from a U.S. college or university.
Earlier this month, China issued a warning advising its students against studying in the U.S. This, after tensions between the two nations skyrocketed over trade issues and U.S. concerns about intellectual property in areas of national security.
Around the same time, the U.S. announced it will end preferential trade treatment for India, which exempted many of the subcontinent's products from U.S. tariffs. Unlike China, the Indian government hasn't — yet — publicly expressed its displeasure or issued any warning to its citizens going to the U.S.
China and India are No. 1 and No. 2 on the list of countries that send the most students to U.S. colleges and universities, together accounting for more than half of all international students.
And they make an impact. In the 2017-18 academic year, international students and scholars at U.S. colleges and universities contributed $39 billion and supported more than 455,000 jobs to the U.S. economy, despite accounting for just 5.5% of higher ed enrollment in the country, Rachel Banks, director of public policy at NAFSA: Association of International Educators, told Education Dive in an email.
While U.S. institutions are attuned to the risk of losing students from China, they're advised to keep an eye on a potential shift in India as well.
There, the recent reelection of Prime Minister Narendra Modi — who campaigned on an uber nationalist platform that appealed to many young voters — and U.S. administration policies perceived as anti-immigrant may prompt Indian students to look elsewhere, including at home.
"A move like this from the U.S. can most definitely make students consider alternate options" instead of going to the U.S. to pursue postsecondary education, said Rahul Choudaha, executive vice president of global engagement, research and intelligence at Studyportals, a student recruiting firm, in an interview with Education Dive.
An 'unwelcome step'
Existing negative sentiments caused by the U.S.'s restrictive immigration policies under the Trump administration and now discussion of a "trade war" with India "is a really unwelcome step that could put off potential students," Choudaha said.
That U.S. immigration policies and pathway-to-immigration rules are in a state of flux compounds the problem for international students, especially Indian students wanting to study at American universities, said Philip Altbach, founding director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College.
The administration has already tightened eligibility criteria for the country's Optional Practical Training (OPT) program that lets some STEM students stay in the U.S. for up to three years after graduation. Indian students make up a large chunk of science, technology and engineering graduates who happily opt for OPT and then often stay on in the U.S. getting jobs and immigrant visas.
In addition, anti-immigrant rhetoric in the U.S. and tightening visa policies are also proving to be a deterrent. For example, last August, the U.S. implemented a policy that could make it easier to bar international students from entering the nation. Colleges have said the move would negatively affect international students.
This, even as countries like Australia, Canada and China are making moves to attract international students with policies that make it easier for them to study and gain work experience, said NAFSA's Banks. "They are building their immigration strategies around welcoming international students," she said. "International students in China with a master's degree or above are immediately eligible to apply for work visas within one year of graduation."
France last year announced it would give four-year grants to professors, graduate students and other scholars to research climate change, she said. And Canada has been "actively working" to recruit international students and tech companies from the U.S., contributing to a 20% increase in international student enrollment in 2017, she added.
The "fact that this U.S. administration's policy is guided by an anti-immigrant view" has created a lot of uncertainty among international students, Altbach said. "This lack of stability in policy … (that) nobody knows what it's going to be like here in six months or two years, is going to be a big factor" in Indian students staying away if they do.
Need for a long-term option
Altbach said the "biggest problem" in attracting Indian students to the U.S. will be if it becomes difficult for those students to stay on for graduation. Even talk of cutting back on OPT could deter Indian students from coming here in the first place.
The majority (85%) of all Indian students in the U.S. are enrolled in STEM fields, with a strong focus on master's programs, according to Choudaha.
Economic and workforce-related factors are driving Indian graduate students to study in the U.S., said Hironao Okahana, associate vice president of research and policy analysis at the Council of Graduate Schools. He cites National Science Foundation data to note that nearly nine in 10 Indian nationals who earned their doctorates from U.S. institutions intend to stay here.
As it is, growth in the OPT program has slowed, and dramatically, according to a Pew Research Center analysis last July. Choudaha said this is one of the main reasons for projections of a softening in enrollment of international students, which has declined for each of the last three years, according to data from the Institute of International Education. The rate of increase in enrollment of students from India also slowed during that time, according to IIE data.
Meanwhile, incidents of hate crimes in the U.S. against people from Asia and the Middle East haven’t helped any, Okahana said.
"[W]ith social media and the 24/7 news cycle, acts of hatred travel around the globe much quicker, which may deter students from considering some areas of the U.S.," Okahana said.
With the relationship between India and the U.S. now spoiled by a trade spat, in addition to uncertainty about OPT and the prevailing socio-cultural climate, Choudaha said, those Indian students who are looking to apply to colleges in the next three-six months will be weighing their options carefully.