New international student enrollment fell 6.6% from the 2016-17 to the 2017-18 academic years, according to recent data from the Institute of International Education. The decline, which follows a 3% drop from 2015-16 to 2016-17, could indicate a growing disinterest in U.S. higher education among foreign students. Before the decline, new international student enrollment had seen a decade of steady growth.
Meanwhile, U.S. colleges had a record level of international enrollment for the 2017-18 academic year, with a year-over-year increase of 1.5% to more than 1 million students. However, this is the group's smallest annual gain in more than a decade.
The U.S. had moderate annual increases in the number of international students from China and India, rising by 3.6% and 5.4%, respectively. Some countries had steep declines, with Saudi Arabia sending 15.5% fewer students to the U.S. than during the previous academic year.
If the downward trend continues, it could mean the loss of critical tuition dollars. International students often pay more than their in-state American counterparts to attend the same colleges, subsidizing institutional grants. Some colleges that have been particularly hard-hit by lower international student enrollment are already beginning to feel the effects.
The University of Central Missouri, for example, lost out on an estimated $14 million of revenue after 1,500 fewer international students enrolled during the 2017-18 academic year as compared to the previous year, leading to staff and budget cuts, The New York Times reported. And Wright State University, in Ohio, is grappling with an expected $10 million revenue loss in 2019 driven in part by a decrease of nearly 800 international students over a two-year period.
Larger colleges are usually better able to weather the effects of enrollment declines, but that's getting harder as state appropriations become a smaller share of funding for public colleges and the emphasis on tuition revenue grows, according to Stateline.
The decline is attributable to a number of factors, including rising college tuition costs, competition from colleges in other countries and the current political climate in the U.S. In a 2017 survey by EAB and Royall & Company of more than 2,000 international students about their plans to enroll at a U.S. college or university, nearly one-third (32.7%) said they had less interest in doing so due to the country's current political climate. For those who indicated their interest had decreased, 68.9% cited concerns about the Trump administration and 54.6% indicated worries about travel restrictions.
The U.S. Supreme Court's ruling earlier this year to uphold the travel ban against seven countries, including five Muslim-majority nations, along with the Trump administration's efforts to craft stricter visa policies may further depress international interest in U.S. higher education.
The National Association for College Admission Counseling offers several strategies for colleges to improve international student recruitment, including digging into untapped markets and providing personalized support for applicants to become a more attractive option for prospective students.