The number of new international students studying on U.S. campuses declined by 3% in the 2016-17 school year while the number of graduate students declined by 1.3%, according to a recent report from the Institute of International Education (IIE) and the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs.
Overall, the number of international students in the U.S. in 2016-17 increased by just over 3%, for a total of 1.08 million students, the largest number of foreign students the U.S. has ever hosted, according to the IIE's latest (released in November) Open Doors report. However, the number of enrolled international students remains flat, increasing by just about 1% from the prior year.
The students come from over 200 countries around the world. This is the first time there has been a decline in students from the Middle East and North Africa since 2004, the report noted. Officials also blamed the decline on the end of the Brazilian government's Scientific Mobility Program, and on reductions in the government scholarship program of Saudi Arabia.
The rise of students in 2016-17 was primarily due to international students staying in the U.S. longer to gain work experience after graduation, the report stated.
"As more countries become active hosts of international students and implement national strategies to attract them, the competition for top global talent in higher education and the workforce will only intensify," said IIE president and CEO Allan E. Goodman. To ensure the numbers don't continue to decline, he said, "it is critical for U.S. institutions to set strategic goals and be proactive in reaching out to students and families in a wide range of countries in the coming year, and for the United States to keep its academic doors open to students from all over the world."
The greatest number of foreign students (350,00o) come from China, representing a third of all international students in the U.S. The number of students from India increased by 12%, although that is a lower rate than in the prior two years, when there was an increase in students from India of more than 20% each year. The highest growth in 2016-17 was in students from Nepal, India, Nigeria, and Bangladesh.
In terms of states, California hosted the most international students (156,870), followed by New York, Massachusetts, Texas, and Illinois. Looking at the trend by institution, New York University (NYU) hosted the greatest number of international students for the fourth year in a row, followed by the University of Southern California (USC).
Officials at NYU, USC, and Boston University (BU) say their numbers do not reflect the report's overall findings. A USC spokesman said the number of foreign students there has not declined in comparison with the previous year.
Twenty-two percent or 773 students in BU's freshman class are foreign, "the same percentage ballpark as recent years," said Kelly A. Walter, associate vice president for enrollment and dean of admissions. "Our yield on international students increased from 40 to 46%, including students from the Middle East."
The largest number of foreign applications to BU come from China, Walter said, followed by India, South Korea, Canada and Taiwan. While the university has an "extremely robust international recruitment strategy…given world events and the tenor of the current administration in Washington, we have expanded our recruitment and outreach efforts this year." Those expansion plans include recruiting in Australia and New Zealand, on the African continent, and in countries in Southeast Asia such as Vietnam, Walter said.
This fall, NYU enrolled 1,300 foreign students, its largest-ever number of international students, for the class of 2021, said Shawn Abbott, assistant vice president and dean of admissions. "With a few exceptions, we saw an increase among most countries enrolling students at NYU, and we again enrolled the largest international student community of any college or university in the United States."
There have been no notable, multiple-year downturn trends or notable regional differences, Abbott said. As is the case at BU, NYU's largest population of foreign students continues to come from China.
NYU plans to continue pursuing strong outreach and recruitment in the Middle East and Asia, "but we will also continue to send admissions officers to conduct on-the-ground outreach and recruitment throughout Central and South America, Canada, Africa, Oceania and Europe," said Abbott.
The IIE also conducted a "short snapshot survey" in tandem with nine other U.S. higher education associations to provide a view into what happened on college campuses in the fall of 2017. The survey in September and October found "an overall flattening of the total number of international students in the U.S.," including a 7% decline in international students enrolling at colleges here for the first time. This continues a trend the IIE saw in the fall of 2016.
However, those findings "should be interpreted with caution" since they only include a subset of institutions, noted Rajika Bhandari, head of research, policy & practice at the IIE.
The Open Doors report findings are based on respondents from 2,000 U.S. colleges and universities. International students contributed more than $39 billion to the U.S. economy in 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Esther Shein is a freelance technology and business writer based in the Boston area.
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