Survey Finds College Applications from International Students Down


Colleges and universities in the U.S. could see a sharp decline in enrollment of international students if initial figures from a survey are an early indicator of what’s to come.

Nearly 40 percent of responding U.S. institutions are reporting a drop in international student applications, particularly from students in the Middle East, according to initial findings from a survey of 250 schools. Declines are also reported for students from China and India at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.

Those figures are a reversal of about a decade of steady increases in applications from international students, which pushed the number of international students studying in the U.S. over 1 million last year.

The survey effort was led by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, in partnership with the Institute of International Education, NAFSA: Association of International Educators, the College Board and the National Association for College Admissions Counseling. The groups took on the issue after international educators expressed concerns that the political discourse surrounding foreign nationals in the U.S. leading up to the November 2016 presidential election could be damaging to international student recruitment efforts.

The initial survey results come on the heels of a pair of executive orders regarding immigration signed by President Donald Trump. The second order, like the first, suspends the U.S. refugee program for 120 days and largely bars travel from six majority-Muslim countries for 90 days: Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Iraq, which was included in the original order, was omitted from the restrictions in the second list, one of several changes designed to address courts’ concerns with the original order.

“After the collective outcry resulting from the first executive order, we are disappointed that President Trump’s administration has continued to pursue this action,” NACAC president Nancy Beane said in a statement. “For educational institutions in the United States, the negative effects of the ban will extend far beyond 90 days and well beyond the six countries involved.”

Notably, the survey also found that 35 percent of schools reported an increase in applications from international students, and 26 percent reported no change in applicant numbers. In addition, the findings are based on quick responses to an online survey and therefore have serious limitations.

“This report provides a snapshot of foreign applications to U.S. higher education institutions, initiates a dialogue, and should assist institutions as they forecast and prepare for what might lie ahead,” the report reads.

“It is an early indicator at best, and even the campuses themselves won’t know what their actual enrollment is until this fall,” says Sharon Witherell, the director of public affairs at the Institute of International Education.

“Right now they are reaching out to students who applied to let them know if they have been accepted, and to encourage the ones who were accepted to come here,” she says. “They have to decide and then apply for visas, so it is too early to know what the effect for this year will be. Even for the coming year, those application decisions were likely made early last fall.”

Even still, there are about 1 million international students in the U.S. for higher education – nearly 80 percent from the Middle East – and they brought about $36 billion to the U.S. economy in 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Higher education policy experts warn that there would certainly be economic impact if the enrollments start to decline.

“What is more unknown is what the impact will be on students who would be applying this coming fall for admission the following year,” says Witherell. “This is the time that campuses need to work on their outreach and international recruitment strategies and let students know they are still welcome on campus.”

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