Why Growth in International Enrollments Could Soon Be Slowing

November 16, 2015

The most recent study on foreign-student trends was just released today, but the real question for American higher education is what the next report, one year from now, will show.

That’s because the latest report, while showing robust growth in overseas enrollments, relies on data from the past academic year, 2014-15. There are already signs, however, that the future outlook could be gloomier: The economy in China, which accounts for a third of all international students in the United States, has started to slow; its stock market crashed this summer. Economic and political shifts could change or curtail government scholarship programs in several countries that send tens of thousands students here to study. And the results of a recent court case, which reversed an Obama-administration decision expanding the time foreign science and engineering students can work after graduation, could have a chilling effect.

The possibility of slowing growth — never mind outright declines — should trouble the leaders of American colleges, who have come to rely on international students and the tuition dollars they bring.

To be clear, the current report, put out by the Institute of International Education, is good news for colleges. In 2014-15, nearly a million students from overseas studied on American campuses, a record number. The rate of growth, too, was near-unprecedented, at 10 percent, the highest in 35 years.

Perhaps the brightest spot is India, which had seen several years of declines before showing a slight reversal in 2013-14. This year the second-largest sender of students is in full rebound, up almost 30 percent. "India’s a substantial driver," says Peggy Blumenthal. senior counselor to the president at the institute. "I don’t know if we would have predicted that a couple of years ago."

In real numbers, India and China rose by almost identical amounts, by about 30,000 students, though China’s percentage gain was significantly smaller, 11 percent.

This is one hint China’s growth could be softening — just a couple of years earlier its growth was double the current rate.

Elsewhere there is evidence of a drop-off. The Council of Graduate Schools reports a dip in graduate-student applications from China for this fall. Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security, which maintains a database of all student-visa holders in the United States, including grade-school students, says there were 29,000 fewer Chinese students in the country in September 2015 than in October 2014.

If Chinese numbers, which account for close to 60 percent of the international-student increase in the past decade, were to decline, that could be worrisome for American institutions. Chinese students this past year contributed close to $10-billion to the American economy, with much of that money going to colleges. Foreign-student revenues have helped plug budgetary holes caused by the recession and declining taxpayer support.

And a surging India won’t solve a China slowdown. Even with the recent upswing, the number of Indian students who come to the United States is less than half of those from China. In fact, there are more students from China than the rest of the top-five sending countries combined.

Complicating the picture, a couple of other countries that have experienced robust growth in recent years could be in for a serious slowdown. Brazil, which posted a 78-percent increase in this most recent report, will partially suspend a popular program to send students in the sciences abroad. In Saudi Arabia, a generous scholarship named for the late King Abdullah is likely to be revamped under his successor; most of the 60,000 Saudi students in America are here via the program.

Nor are all the threats from overseas. In August, a federal judge ruled invalid an Obama administration decision to extend the time foreign students in high-demand majors can work in the United States after graduation to 29 months. The government last month proposed a rule to authorize the extension, but if it is not adopted, the current program, which is often highlighted by colleges in their overseas recuitment, will expire in February.

With such uncertainty both domestically and abroad, many higher-education officials will be looking at the trends like reading tea leaves — and eagerly anticipating next year’s data.

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