Hefty fee increases at US universities could be the real reason why international students aren’t enrolling in droves anymore.

Forbes reported a close to US$5,000 hike in fees since 2012, a figure more than 11 times of the increase slapped on Americans. In total, students from abroad are paying more than three times in tuitions and fees (US$23,5000 in 2016) compared to US citizens, according to figures from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study.

The findings offer a plausible alternative to the narrative certain universities have been giving to explain why international applicants are shunning their institutions: US President Donald Trump.

Trump’s incendiary immigration policies, in particular, are said to be the key factor repelling international applicants from US colleges and universities, pushing them to countries with friendlier visa and post-graduation work rights such as Canada and Australia.

While this may hold true for applicants who are citizens from the list of countries targeted under the infamous travel ban, it may not represent the whole picture globally. New data from the annual Open Doors survey showed new undergraduate enrollments fell 6.3 percent, 5.5 percent at the graduate level, and 9.7 percent at the nondegree level from 2016-17 to 2017-18.

The number of graduate and professional students from India, the second-largest country for international students in the US after China, fell significantly by 8.8 percent. Saudi Arabia, the fourth-largest, showed a decline of 5.1 percent. Both countries are not included in Trump’s travel ban, though it should be noted that they may have been driven away by the Trump administration restrictions to the H-1B visa program and the Optional Practical Training program, both of which allows international students to work temporarily in the US after graduating.

The ability to work in a host country is a big draw for international students for many reasons. It can add international work experience to one’s CV, allows students to apply what they learned in their field of study or provide an opportunity for them to work towards building a career or permanent residence in their host country.

The average tuition fees at Canadian universities in 2017/18 was CA$25,180 (US$19,052) per year, markedly lower than the US’ by several thousand. And it has another upper hand too: a liberal post-study work scheme. In certain areas like Montreal, there’s even a dedicated local policy to encourage international students to stay on to work in the local economy and gain permanent residence.

When fees are high and the chances of getting these post-graduation work opportunities low, paying  US$23,500 in tuition and fees at a US university does not make as much financial sense, especially when there are cheaper and better options elsewhere.

The “Trump Effect” may not be the sole driving force behind the falling enrollment rates but it appears to still have an influence, albeit lesser.

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