It appears the U.S. is becoming a less-attractive place to pursue graduate education, and that’s an alarming trend for schools that count on tuition dollars from foreign students.
• Between fall 2016 and 2017, the number of international students applying to graduate school in the U.S. declined 3%, according to survey data published Tuesday by the Council of Graduate Schools, a graduate school advocacy organization.
• The number of international graduate students enrolling for the first time at U.S. institutions also fell by 1% during the same period. This year’s survey marks the first time in more than a decade that both the number of international students applying to U.S graduate schools and the number enrolling for the first time has fallen. The findings mirror a report from late last year indicating that fewer international students were enrolling in U.S. colleges for the first time.
“That gives us something to be concerned about,” said Hironao Okahana, the assistant vice president for research and policy analysis at the Council of Graduate Schools and a co-author of the study released Tuesday.
U.S. colleges rely on foreign students for revenue
This trend could be problematic for American students, higher education institutions and the U.S. economy. International students contributed more than $9 billion to the U.S. economy in 2016, according to Chamber of Commerce data.
Overseas students subsidize other students and programs, as they often pay higher fees, said Mark Huelsman, a senior policy analyst at Demos, a left-leaning think tank. “Many colleges and, in particular, public colleges have relied on international students paying full-freight in order to make up for budget shortfalls elsewhere,” he said.
But they bring in more than money. International students also provide cultural diversity to college campuses, which can be particularly important for graduate students who will likely need to collaborate with a global workforce after they graduate, Okahana said.
Political rhetoric may be one cause
The reasons behind the decline are complex and may have to do in part with factors in students’ home countries, Okahana said. But it’s also possible that some of the “rhetoric” and “climate issues” surrounding immigrants in the U.S. may be affecting international students’ interest in pursuing an education here, he said.
The Trump administration’s executive order banning immigrants from certain countries from coming to the U.S. — which is still in legal limbo — may be influencing graduate students’ decisions, the report notes. The number of students applying to and enrolling in U.S. graduate schools from the Middle East and North Africa, where the countries affected by the travel ban are located, declined for the past two application cycles, it found
The administration has signaled in other ways that it would like to limit immigration, including comments during President Trump’s State of the Union Tuesday night that he’d like to end an immigration practice that allows immigrants to sponsor relatives.
The uncertainty surrounding policies like the travel ban, combined with “very harsh” language has “a chilling effect on a pool of students wanting to come here,” said Mark Huelsman, a senior policy analyst at Demos, a left-leaning think tank.
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Other countries see this as an opportunity to lure students
That feeling appears to be so pervasive that professors at universities in other countries are using it to lure students normally bound for the U.S., said Samantha Hernandez, the director of legislative affairs at the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students.
“The fact that other universities and other countries can take advantage of this rhetoric is concerning for United States higher education,” she said.
Even students from countries that don’t appear to be directly affected by the Trump administration’s immigration policies may be questioning America’s reputation as a top destination for graduate school, according to the report.
Okahana noted that the declining number of students from Mexico and Canada applying to and enrolling in U.S. graduate schools, which could be a signal of declining favorability towards the U.S. from people living in those countries. Other survey data indicates that Canadians and Mexicans view the U.S. less favorably than in the past.
But the American political climate isn’t the only reason international students may be shying away from studying here. Dynamics in students’ home countries also play a role. For example, the number of Indian students applying to and enrolling in U.S. graduate schools dropped for the first time since a period of rapid growth that started a few years ago. Okahana said the rupee, India’s currency, isn’t worth as much as it’s been in the past, making it more difficult for students to pay for an education in the U.S.