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New enrollments of international students fell by 6.6 percent at American universities in academic year 2017-18 compared to the year before, marking the second straight year in declines in new enrollments, according to new data from the annual Open Doors survey.

New enrollments fell 6.3 percent at the undergraduate level, 5.5 percent at the graduate level and 9.7 percent at the nondegree level from 2016-17 to 2017-18.

A separate survey of institutions found that the decline in new international enrollments is continuing this fall, though the drop was less severe than that reported last year.

Institutions that responded to this fall's enrollment survey reported on average a 1.5 percent continuing drop in new international enrollments, a drop that comes on top of last year's declines. However, while about half (49 percent) of respondents reported declines in new international enrollments this fall, another 44 percent reported increases, and 7 percent said their numbers were stable.

“This is very much a mixed picture,” said Rajika Bhandari, a senior adviser for research and strategy and director of the Center for Academic Mobility Research & Impact at the Institute of International Education, which conducts the survey with funding from the Department of State. “We’re seeing those new enrollment numbers really vary based on institutional characteristics.”

Unlike in past years, IIE did not release the full findings of the current fall enrollment survey to reporters in advance along with the Open Doors data, but Bhandari and Peggy Blumenthal, a senior counselor to the president at IIE, shared several top-line findings in an interview last week with Inside Higher Ed. Among the findings, institutions in the center of the country -- specifically the South Central region, which includes Texas, and the West North Central region -- are seeing sharper declines than are institutions on the coasts. Less selective institutions are also seeing steeper declines.

"The large research institutions, many of them are seeing growth," Blumenthal said. "The less well-known abroad schools and the schools giving associate degrees are seeing much sharper declines."

Full results of the enrollment survey for this fall were posted on the IIE website last week. 

Notable Shifts

Over all (as opposed to new) international enrollments did increase by 1.5 percent from 2016-17 to 2017-18, according to the Open Doors survey, which collected data from 2,075 institutions. But that growth is being driven by a boom in the number of students participating in the optional practical training program, OPT, which enables graduates of U.S. colleges to stay in the country and work for up to three years after graduating while remaining on their student visas. A change in 2016 to the duration of OPT for students studying STEM fields means that students are staying in the OPT pipeline for longer after they graduate from their program.

Among the big changes in the Open Doors data for academic year 2017-18 was an 8.8 percent drop from the prior year in the number of graduate and professional students from India, the second-largest country of origin for international students in the U.S. after China.

Another notable shift was a 6.4 percent drop in the number of international graduate students studying engineering, the most popular field of study for international students in the U.S.

Universities also saw a 15.5 percent overall decline in the number of students from the No. 4 sending country, Saudi Arabia. The number of Saudi students declined at all academic levels, a change that's largely attributable to the Saudi government scaling back a foreign scholarship program that has sent thousands of Saudi students to study at U.S. universities.

At the undergraduate level, higher education institutions reported double-digit year-over-year increases in students from the No. 6 sending country, Vietnam, No. 10 Brazil and No. 11 Nepal.

The number of students from the No. 1 sending country, China, continued to increase at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, by 4 and 2 percent respectively, but declined at the nondegree level. Chinese students account for 33.2 percent of international students in the U.S.; together with India, students from the two countries account for more than half (51.1 percent) of all international students.

Among other notable shifts involving top sending countries, the numbers of students from the No. 3 sending country, South Korea, fell for the seventh straight year, by 7 percent, a trend that Blumenthal attributes to the changing demographics of South Korea and to the improving quality of the Korean higher education system.

There were also declines in the overall number of students coming from America's neighbors, Canada and Mexico, two countries where President Trump is deeply unpopular. While there were drops at all academic levels for Canadian and Mexican students -- except for the OPT level -- the steepest decline was in the number of Mexican students coming for nondegree study, including intensive English, which fell by 39.1 percent.

This year's Open Doors data also provide a first glimpse of the impact on international enrollments of President Trump's various travel bans barring entry to the U.S. for citizens of a group of mostly Muslim-majority countries.

Iran, the No. 12 sending country, is the only country affected by Trump’s travel ban that sends substantial numbers of students to the U.S. Although an Inside Higher Ed analysis of State Department data showed a sharp drop in the number of student visas awarded to Iranians in the year after the first iteration of the ban went into place in January 2017, the Open Doors data do not suggest there was a big effect on Iranian student enrollments that fall. On the contrary, the Open Doors data show a 1.2 percent increase in the number of Iranian students at the graduate level -- significant, since about three-quarters of all Iranian students in the U.S. study at the graduate level. The number of Iranian students did decline at the undergraduate (-16.8 percent) and nondegree levels (-35.7 percent), but from a much smaller base.

Among other countries covered by the first and second versions of Trump's travel ban -- which were in effect for parts of the application cycle of the 2017-18 year -- there were drops in the total numbers of students from Iraq (-15.3 percent), Libya (-18.8 percent), Syria (-12.2 percent) and Yemen (-21.4 percent), and increases in the number of students from Somalia (+34 percent) and Sudan (+2.2 percent).

A third and current version of the ban bars all students from North Korea and Syria from applying for student visas unless they obtain a waiver. Nationals of the other affected countries are eligible to apply for student visas, though in practice they may have difficulty obtaining them.

Political and Social Factors?

International educators have been deeply concerned that international students could be deterred by more restrictive policies on visas coupled with the Trump administration's rhetoric on immigration. The president reportedly described most Chinese students in the U.S. as spies and entertained a proposal from a senior adviser to stop awarding student visas to Chinese nationals. The Trump administration has introduced new, enhanced visa questionnaires for certain applicants and has introduced a controversial new policy making it easier for international students to accrue what's known as "unlawful presence" in the U.S., a determination that can subject them to future three- or 10-year bars on re-entry.

"Institutions are reporting that the social and political environment continues to be a challenge for international recruitment," Bhandari said in relation to the survey of institutions conducted this fall. "Institutions are also reporting that they're concerned about recruitment from Asia."

She added, "We have about 43 percent of institutions saying that cost continues to be a challenge and that they are trying to ameliorate the situation through approaches like providing more tuition waivers and scholarships and waiving the application fee.”

In a press call with reporters, officials at IIE and the State Department seemed to want to downplay the degree to which political and social factors -- including a rise in mass shootings -- might be deterring international students. In the call IIE officials emphasized a number of other factors for the drop in new students, including the rising cost of U.S. higher education, increased competition for students from other countries and changes to foreign government scholarship programs, including Saudi Arabia's.

"It’ll always be a very, very mixed picture, and the international education consumer is always concerned about access, diversity, quality, cost, safety, but in the past couple of years for me the biggest new development is that there are real competitor countries out there that we've never had before," said Allan E. Goodman, IIE's president.

“This flattening started in 2015-2016, when applications were being filled out in 2014, so it’s quite frankly unwarranted to say that it is completely the result of a political environment," Caroline Casagrande, the deputy assistant secretary for academic programs at the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, said during the press call. The Open Doors data show that new international enrollments at U.S. colleges increased in 2015-16, but by a slower rate (2.4 percent) compared to the prior year (8.8 percent). The first recorded drop in new enrollments came in academic year 2016-17.

Rahul Choudaha, the executive vice president of global engagement and research at StudyPortals, a company that offers an online international student recruitment platform, said it's difficult to gauge just how much of an effect political factors have had, but he believes the political climate has dampened growth potential from certain source countries. "It's a scenario of lost opportunity, because from the institution’s side there is clearly an interest to internationalize and attract more international students for a variety of reasons," Choudaha said.

Choudaha added that another phenomenon to note is "the big getting bigger."

"There are institutions in the Midwest that are facing a much sharper decline -- and a bigger effect of this Trump effect, you might say -- but then on the other side there are institutions in California, New York and Massachusetts, and if they are higher in the Carnegie classification, which means they are highly ranked, they are not seeing any effect."

Among the top 10 states hosting international students, there were increases in the total number of international students (including OPT participants) in No. 1 destination California (+3.2 percent), No. 2 New York (+2.4 percent), No. 4 Massachusetts (+8.4 percent), No. 5 Illinois (+2.2 percent), No. 6 Pennsylvania (+1.3 percent) and No. 7 Florida (+1.7 percent), and declines in No. 3 Texas (-0.9 percent), No. 8 Ohio (-2.8 percent), No. 9 Michigan (-0.7 percent) and No. 10 Indiana (-2 percent). 

Detailed tables from Open Doors showing changes in international enrollment by country of origin and field of study from 2016-17 to 2017-18 are below. Another table shows percent changes in total international enrollment in all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia, and notes which candidate the state went for in the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton or Trump. 

Percent Change in Total International Enrollments from 2016-17 to 2017-18
From Top 15 Countries of Origin by Academic Level

  Undergraduate Graduate Nondegree OPT Overall
World Total +0.8% -2.1% -10.1% +15.8% +1.5%
1. China +4% +2% -7.7% +9.8% +3.6%
2. India +6.2% -8.8% -16.6% +32% +5.4%
3. South Korea -8.1% -5.5% -16.1% -0.9% -7%
4. Saudi Arabia -15% -10.2% -34% -2.4% -15.5%
5. Canada -4.6% -5.9% -5.8% +2.7% -4.3%
6. Vietnam +10.9% +5.7% -3% +3.4% +8.4%
7. Taiwan +7% +3.2% -4.4% +6.5% +4.4%
8. Japan +1% -1.7% -2.4% +3.7% -0.1%
9. Mexico -6.3% -6.5% -39.1% +15.3% -8.1%
10. Brazil +16.6% +5.8% +17.1% +3.6% +11.7%
11. Nepal +17.9% +13.7% -50% +7.6% +14.3%
12. Iran -16.8% +1.2% -35.7% +14.3% +1.1%
13. Nigeria +1.5% +12.3% -23.5% +29.8% +8.4%
14. United Kingdom -1.5% -4.1% +1.9% +12.3% -0.3%
15. Turkey -1.3% -0.3% -33.1% +18.3% -0.6%

Enrolled International Students by Field of Study and Academic Level

  2016-17 Undergraduates 2017-18 Undergraduates Percent Change 2016-17 Graduates 2017-18 Graduates Percent Change
Agriculture 4,026 4,151 +3.1% 6,281 5,852 -6.8%
Business and Management 106,669 101,755 -4.6% 57,167 57,506 +0.6%
Communications and Journalism 12,395 12,460 +0.5% 5,759 5,691 -1.2%
Education 4,503 4,166 -7.5% 10,867 10,735 -1.2%
Engineering 71,622 71,151 -0.7% 105,060 98,307 -6.4%
Fine and Applied Arts 29,955 31,999 +6.8% 20,196 19,894 -1.5%
Health Professions 12,331 12,410 +0.6% 16,454 16,475 +0.1%
Humanities 5,037 5,077 +0.8% 9,877 9,555 -3.3%
Legal Studies and Law Enforcement 2,321 2,226 -4.1% 9,053 10,092 +11.5%
Math and Computer Science 43,847 49,566 +13% 76,113 76,352 +0.3%
Physical and Life Sciences 26,965 27,902 +3.5% 37,056 37,098 +0.1%
Social Sciences 42,761 43,579 +1.9% 28,188 27,734 -1.6%

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