Assessing the Travel Ban: What New Data on Overseas Recruitment Does — and Doesn’t — Tell Us

July 06, 2017

One report on international-student trends concludes that American colleges have been "hard hit" by declining interest from the Middle East, while another expresses "cautious optimism" that the number of overseas students accepting offers of admission to American institutions could be above projections. A third shares the concerns of graduate-school deans, half of whom say they are seeing "substantial" falloffs in foreign enrollments.

All three reports were released in the last day and a half.

Since its initial rollout, in January, educators have been deeply concerned that President Trump’s travel ban could depress enrollments from abroad, and have been hungry for information that could provide insight into its effects. The recent data dump, however, might rightly leave their heads spinning.

The simple fact is, we won’t know for certain about the true impact of the ban — and the "America First" sentiments that birthed it — until students arrive on American campuses for the start of the fall semester. (The U.S. Supreme Court, in announcing last week that it would hear an appeal of the travel-ban case, partly reinstated the travel restrictions but specified that students should be allowed to enter the United States.)

But despite their seeming contradictions, the three reports — from the Council of Graduate Schools; the Hotcourses Group, an international-student search firm; and a group of American education associations led by the Institute of International Education — do offer some hints.

Here are three takeaways:

Master’s programs could take a hit.

In a survey conducted in late May and early June by the Council of Graduate Schools, 46 percent of graduate deans reported "substantial downward changes" in international admissions yields, or the share of accepted students who enroll, at the master’s-degree level. By contrast, just 24 percent said yields were down for domestic students.

That matters because a majority of international graduate students — more than three-quarters — pursue master’s degrees or graduate certificates. While the survey didn’t ask deans to report precise yield numbers, a drop that is wide or deep or both could have, in the words of the typically cautious graduate-schools association, "substantial implications" for first-time international enrollments this fall.

And unlike doctoral students, whose tuition and other costs are typically covered by scholarships and teaching or research stipends, master’s-degree students pay their own way. Many of those programs, in business, computer science, and engineering, are critical to colleges’ bottom line.

That master’s numbers could be immediately affected by the ban is, in many ways, not surprising. Many international students at the undergraduate level opt out of their national educational systems in choosing to go abroad, while a doctoral degree is the culmination of an educational dream of many years. Students who pursue a master’s, by comparison, often are taking time out of careers to earn an advanced degree. Delaying a year while the travel-ban dust settles may be the easiest for this group.

Keep an eye on India.

The prohibitions on travel to the United States were directed at a half-dozen predominantly Muslim countries. But the real country to watch may well be India.

Hotcourses, which publishes websites and guides for students who want to study overseas, examined shifts in searches on its sites over the last 12 months. It found that the share of Indian students searching for American colleges dropped sharply, from 36 percent of all searches by Indian users to just 27 percent. Where might those students instead be looking? Canada, whose share of searches climbed from 8 percent to 23 percent.

Hotcourses, which based its findings on some 34 million users, noted that interest in the United States from the Middle East also declined. But the six countries named in the travel ban make up just 15,000 out of more than one million international students studying in America. India, on the other hand, accounts for more than 15 percent of all foreign enrollments, second only to China.

The travel ban has received heavy and negative press coverage in India, particularly after an Indian engineer — who had earned an American graduate degree — was killed in Kansas after apparently being mistaken for an Iranian. Concerns that the Trump administration could make it harder for Indian graduates to stay in the United States and work could also dampen interest from India, where prospective students consider American work experience to be vital.

Maybe the sky’s not falling after all.

Esther D. Brimmer, executive director of Nafsa: Association for International Educators, one group that worked on the study conducted by the coalition of organizations, said she was "cautiously optimistic" about its findings.

The study found that yield rates for international undergraduates were down by just 2 percent — comparable to those for domestic students. About half of the 165 colleges that responded to the survey reported declines, while a third said yield rates were actually up.

Though the report’s authors conclude that it is "difficult to draw a definite conclusion" when relatively few institutions were included in the survey, it nonetheless could offer some hope to nervous colleges. For one, it suggests that undergraduate enrollment trends may be more resilient, at least in the short term.

And, as the report notes, in the five months since the travel ban was first announced, many colleges have adjusted their recruitment and admissions strategies in order to head off potential declines, among them more aggressively following up with accepted students and mobilizing alumni and current students to reach out to those who have expressed interest. Colleges may also have fine-tuned their admissions offers to make up for any drops overseas.

Karin Fischer writes about international education, colleges and the economy, and other issues. She’s on Twitter @karinfischer, and her email address is