international students US
Is Trump solely responsible for the drop in international student numbers across US universities? Source: Shutterstock

The latest 2019 Open Doors report released by the Institute of International Education (IIE) has confirmed what has already been widely reported – that international student enrolment in the US is steadily declining.

Although the number of international students from China and India enrolling in US universities have increased, overall student enrolment has dropped.

According to VOA news, “The annual Open Doors report, compiled by the Institute for International Education with the US State Department and released Monday, for the 2018-2019 school year showed enrolment of 1,095,299 international students among 19,828,000 total students in institutions of higher education in the US.

“That makes international students 5.5 percent of all college and university students in the US.The numbers showed a slight increase in total international enrolment, 0.05 percent from the previous year, but a decrease in new international student enrolment, -0.9 percent.

“Decreases were seen in undergraduate (-2.4 percent), graduate (-1.3 percent) and non-degree (-5.0 percent) trends, as well.”

The declining interest for US higher education among international students is largely put down to their negative perception of President Donald Trump.

Since taking over as the POTUS, he has implemented a number of policies that made it harder for students to obtain student visas, as well as working visas under the Optional Practical Training (OPT) programme after graduation.

The immigration policies and growing negative rhetoric surrounding foreigners is also putting international students off.

But is Trump solely to blame? Justin Fox, a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and ex-editorial director of Harvard Business Review, recently noted that the decline in the US started before he even took office, and that there are other factors at play.

“The decline in new students started with the 2016-2017 academic year, which is a little hard to blame on Trump given that most students had already showed up well before he was elected.

“Likelier culprits would seem to be the sharp rise in the relative value of the US dollar in 2015 and 2016, and the cash-strapped Saudi Arabian government’s early-2016 decision to cut back on scholarships for study abroad.

“The number of new Saudi students in the US has continued to fall, going from 61,007 in 2015-2016 to 37,080 in 2018-2019, which adds up to 76 percent of the overall new-international-student decline over that period.”

Fox also wrote that another factor could be that US public universities aren’t as dependent on international students, who pay out-of-state tuition, as they used to be, and in-state students have been spending 15 percent more since 2012-2013.

“Over the preceding 12 years, that spending had dropped 70 percent (!), which was surely a major factor in the near-doubling in international student enrolment that immediately preceded the recent slowdown.”

However, according to Fox, in a survey sent to college admissions officers conducted by the IIE this year, “87 percent…cited difficulties in obtaining visas as a reason, up from 34 percent in autumn 2016; 58 percent mentioned the social and political environment in the US, up from 15 percent in 2016; and 46 percent mentioned student concerns about their physical safety in the US, up from 12 percent in 2016.”

Therefore, Trump may be to blame to a certain extent, but other factors are also at play. Countries like Canada and Australia have reported higher international student numbers, viewed as much more attractive options for international students – something that could also be owed to the lower tuition fees found in these countries compared to the US.

The odds are currently against the US when it comes to attracting international students, regardless of whether or not this owed to Trump. Whether the damage can be reversed remains to be seen, but can the US once again rise to become the world’s No. 1 study abroad destination?

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