Foreign Enrollment at U.S. Colleges Drops by Most Since 2003

U.S. universities experienced the biggest enrollment drop among international students in 16 years, even before Covid-19 ravaged the globe — a sign of how the Trump administration’s immigrationpolicies have hurt American higher education.

Attendance slid 1.8% in the 2019-20 academic year to 1.08 million, according to the Open Doors report released Monday by the nonprofit Institute of International Education. That’s the third-biggest drop in the report’s almost 70-year history.

“This is largely driven by the unwelcoming message” from the federal government under President Donald Trump, said Donald Heller, professor of education at the University of San Francisco.

The decline is certain to be much bigger in the current academic year as the pandemic curbed international travel and visa issuance. Data this month from the National Clearinghouse Research Center show undergraduate and graduate enrollment declined 15% and 7.8%, respectively, for the fall semester.

Colleges have expressed alarm about international admissions for most of Trump’s presidency, saying it has discouraged foreign students from attending U.S. schools, once viewed as the platinum standard of higher education. The administration’s policies andproposals are prompting them to consider other destinations.

A measure of the economic benefits that foreign students bring to the U.S. fell for the first time in the more than two decades that it has been tracked by NAFSA: Association of International Educators. Such students contributed $38.7 billion to the U.S. economy in 2019-20, down from almost $41 billion a year earlier, according to the trade group.

“What immigrants contribute to this country in terms of talent, energy and economics really fell flat with this administration,” said Rachel Banks, NAFSA’s senior director for public policy and legislative strategy. “That’s one of the hopeful things with a change in administration.”

Joe Biden

President-elect Joe Biden has promised to reverse many of Trump’s policies, including some of his immigration rules.

Foreigners account for 5.5% of all students enrolled in higher education, according to Open Doors. In addition to the diverse cultures they bring to campus, they’re also attractive to U.S. colleges because many pay full price. Heller said schools now may need to offer tuition discounts to continue attracting them.

Enrollment at U.S. universities for students from Saudi Arabia tumbled 16.5%, the most of any country, primarily because of changes to that government’s scholarship program, according to the Open Doors report.

Saudi Arabia isn’t subject to Trump’s travel ban, yet the policy probably contributed to the enrollment declines from that nation, Heller said.

“Students from predominantly Muslim countries are going to be taking a second look at the U.S. and asking if this is the place they want to be,” he said.

China remained the top country of origin during the last school year with 373,000 students, an increase of 0.8% from the previous year, or 36% of the total.

— With assistance by Sophie Caronello

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