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International Student Enrollment Is Tapering, But Not for the Reasons You May Think

Unlike many lawyers I know, I did not go directly from my undergraduate studies to law school. In fact, when I graduated from Boston University with a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do and law was only on the back of my mind.

After a stint as a circulation manager and a Master’s degree from Brown University in Italian Studies, I landed a job as an International Student Advisor at Purdue University in 1993. Finally, something that made my heart sing. My responsibilities included helping students remain in compliance with their F-1 and J-1 visas, and navigating approvals for practical training and travel.

On the side I advised the Latin American and squash clubs, memberships which included mostly international students. Between those clubs and the relatively small size of the international student population, I got to know the students well. I enjoyed socializing with them and gained a large circle of Italian friends who were studying there.

My frustration as an International Student Advisor came when a problem arose that I couldn’t fix and I had to send the student to an attorney. After two years working at Purdue, I decided I wanted to be that attorney and enrolled in law school.

Trends Leading to Lower International Student Growth

Since my time at Purdue, domestic student enrollment has dropped at many U.S. universities. They have responded by courting international students to fill the gap. International student enrollment in the U.S. soared from 564,800 in 2006 to 974,900 in 2015 according to the Institute of International Education (IIE). It has continued to grow since then but the growth has tapered.

While the timing of the tapering happens to coincide with the election and tenure of the current U.S. President, there are larger trends and forces slowing international enrollment, and in some cases, decreasing it.

The IIE reports that the top four senders of students to the U.S. for 2017/2018 were China, India, South Korea and Saudi Arabia. All figures quoted in this section are from the IIE.

China and India are by far the two largest sources of international students and accounted for 559,600 of the 1.1 million international students in the U.S. for the 2017/2018 school year. That’s just over half. Both countries are facing population growth slowdowns. There are now fewer four-and-under children in those countries than there are ten-and-over. Over time there will be fewer Chinese and Indian students looking to study abroad because there will be fewer Chinese and Indian students overall.

South Korea’s college age population has been shrinking for decades. Enrollment of South Korean college students in U.S. universities began falling in 2012 and decreased by 25 percent in just six years (from 72,300 in 2012 to 54,600 in 2018).

Internationals students from Saudi Arabia benefited from the King Abdullah Scholarship Program, which President George W. Bush and the late King devised in 2005 to help the two countries reduce tensions caused by the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Saudi Arabian student enrollment in U.S. colleges rose from 3,400 in 2006 to 61,300 in 2016. Falling oil prices caused budget short falls, however, and in 2016 Saudi Arabia made deep cuts in the program. In just two years, the number of Saudi Arabian students has decreased to 44,400.

All of this is not to say that the current White House resident’s rhetoric, visa denials and delays aren’t affecting international student enrollment. They are. But so far, demographics and funding are playing a larger role in enrollment decreases.

Implications of Lower International Student Enrollment for Universities

Universities that have been enjoying the financial lift from international students paying full out-of-state tuition need to plan for the future to hedge the likely decreasing enrollment from that group.

My former employer, Purdue, has already felt the effects. Purdue ranks fourth in international student enrollment among U.S. public institutions and first in those studying STEM disciplines. Purdue’s international enrollment has ballooned since I was there, totaling 8,936 students in fall 2018. While their overall international student count decreased by 197 from 2017 to 2018, the number of Chinese students fell by 383, from 3,696 to 3,313. That’s more than a 10 percent drop, and clearly one Purdue could not completely compensate for from other areas of the world.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (U of I) also has a large Chinese student population and in 2015 began exploring ways to hedge a sudden loss of tuition should enrollment decrease. In 2017 U of I’s Gies College of Business and College of Education took a joint $60 million insurance policy to protect against a major shortfall in tuition income should Chinese enrollment plummet.

The time is now to strategize on how to bridge the gap in enrollment and potential loss of tuition.

Implications of Lower International Student Enrollment for Businesses

U.S. universities won’t be the only sector of the U.S. economy affected by a significant decrease in international student enrollment.

In addition to the estimated $45 billion that international students spend annually in the U.S., many of these students choose to stay and work after graduation, providing a major source of talent for U.S firms. Companies that rely on foreign national talent to round out their work forces may find greater competition for those graduates. And they may need to think about sourcing foreign national employees who went to school in a country other than the U.S.

It is my hope by pointing out these demographic trends and funding issues that it will be easier for your organization to plan to address these potential student and employee gaps.

Please call me if you have any questions: 630.262.1435.