Even Before the Travel Ban, Signs of Weakening Interest From Students Abroad

February 09, 2017

Imaginechina, AP Images
Education officials from the Illinois Institute of Technology talk with visitors at a recruiting fair in Beijing. Graduate-school applications to American universities from overseas students increased by only 1 percent last year, suggesting global markets were already rattled before President Trump took office.
New data suggest the flow of foreign students was already ebbing even before the Trump administration imposed a travel ban on citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries, sparking concern that anti-global attitudes could depress international recruitment.

A new report from the Council of Graduate Schools shows that the number of students from overseas enrolling in American graduate programs in the fall of 2016 grew by 5 percent, the same rate as in the previous year.

Applications from abroad, however, increased by an anemic 1 percent. Trend lines from the two largest sending countries are particularly troubling: First-time enrollments from China flatlined, while those from India tumbled 7 percent, following several years of double-digit growth. Together, the two countries account for half of all international students, and nearly two-thirds of first-time international graduate students, on American campuses.

Interest in the most popular field, engineering, also fell, by 3 percent. One out of four foreign graduate students majors in engineering.

The findings come with several caveats. The report, of course, covers only graduate students, or about 37 percent of the more than one million international students in the United States. And those students were applying to, and even beginning their studies at, American colleges when few political prognosticators gave Donald J. Trump strong odds of winning the presidency. So, despite his sometimes nativist campaign rhetoric, it is unlikely that the billionaire businessman had a direct impact on 2016’s enrollment totals.

The ‘Trump Effect’

But the lack of an obvious "Trump effect" makes the results of the international-enrollment survey even more troubling, as it suggests other factors could be weakening interest in key global markets. The number of new students from Brazil and Saudi Arabia, for instance, fell by 9 percent and 13 percent, respectively, after the governments of those two countries curtailed costly national scholarship programs.

Concern about a brain drain and about exposure to Western values, meanwhile, has led China to invest in improving its own universities. Communist Party officials have also sought to halt the explosive growth of internationally focused high-school programs, which have become a fertile pipeline to overseas study. And enrollments from India have long been volatile, shifting with economic and employment prospects, both at home and in the United States.

"We may be reaching a point," the report warns, "where we will see fewer surges of overall international graduate enrollment and observe more modest changes over time."

Into that mix comes President Trump, who just a week into his presidency ordered a 90-day ban on travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen — and suspended the admission of refugees into the United States. (The executive order is currently on hold, while it is being challenged in court.)

“Trump is such a loose cannon that all it might take is one tweet about Chinese students taking all the spots at American colleges, and China could blow up.”
While the affected countries account for fewer than 2 percent of all international students on American campuses, college officials worry about the travel ban’s signaling power. Even before Mr. Trump took office, a survey of prospective students found that two-thirds would think twice about studying in America were he to be elected.

"Trump is such a loose cannon," said Jiang Xueqin, an educational consultant in China, "that all it might take is one tweet about Chinese students taking all the spots at American colleges, and China could blow up."

Future policy directives from the White House — on trade, say, or immigration policy — could also discourage international enrollments. If Mr. Trump were to put limits on the H-1B visa program for highly skilled workers, that could cause students, from India in particular, who seek postgraduate work experience to stay home or to consider studying in other countries.

That could hit American colleges’ bottom line because both undergraduates and master’s-degree students typically pay full freight on their tuition. Moody’s Investors Service estimates that a disproportionate share of net tuition revenue, as much as 10 percent, collected by American colleges comes from international students.

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