Is President Trump to blame for drop in international student enrollment?

Melbourne campus of Florida Institute of Technology. Photo from Florida Tech website

For many years, international students have been part of the fabric of higher education, steadily increasing enrollment in United States colleges and universities.

But in 2017-18, enrollment by new foreign students dropped by 6.6-percent — a figure described as worrisome and stagnating.

In fact, some people blame the drop on President Donald Trump, according to a new Harvard journal article by Alex Usher, president of Higher Education Strategy Associates, a Toronto-based consultancy.

The headline of the story is: Has President Trump Scared Away All the Foreign Students? The article was published in Education Next, a journal from the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard Kennedy School, and started off with hand-wringing about the drop in international enrollment figures.

“In covering the dwindling enrollment, the Wall Street Journal quoted a college-recruitment specialist as saying that foreign ‘students are not feeling welcome’ in some states, while the Washington Post cited ‘questions about whether President Trump’s nationalist rhetoric and policies have undercut overseas demand for U.S. higher education.’”

But Usher looks more closely at the numbers and says the data does not justify a crisis. The number of foreign students in college or graduate school rose by about 60 percent between 2001 and 2016, but it has leveled off since then, according to data in the article.

However, “Though growth has stagnated, the numbers of international students remain substantially higher than they were a decade ago,” Usher wrote.

Students come to the United States from some 200 countries around the world, with the most students coming from China, India, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Canada, and Vietnam.

Based on 2017-18 data by U.S. News and World Report, colleges and universities reporting the highest percentages of international students — the top 10 — are in Florida, New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Illinois and California. Those schools are in the category of national universities.

Florida Institute of Technology, in Melbourne, reporting 32 percent foreign students, had the highest percentage of international students.

As to President Trump’s potential role in declining international student numbers, the Usher wrote:

“While there is solid evidence for a mild “recession” in international-student numbers, concentrated mainly in less research-intensive institutions, the question is, why is it happening? Admissions professionals are floating two non-exclusive explanations.

The first is an apparent diminution of America’s appeal in many countries and—more concretely—a harsher visa regime in the United States. The visa situation can be placed squarely at the feet of the Trump administration. The president may also bear some responsibility for the overall drop in America’s attractiveness, though there is evidence that this decline started prior to his election. The second is high tuition costs. Both explanations have merit.”

The full article can be seen at this link: https://www.educationnext.org/has-president-trump-scared-away-foreign-students-facts-behind-fears-higher-education-revenue-recession/

Diane Rado
Diane Rado has covered state and local government and public schools in six states over some 30 years, focusing on policy and investigative stories as well as legislative and political reporting. She spent most of her career at the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times and the Chicago Tribune. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and did a fellowship in education reform at the University of Michigan in 1999-2000. She is married to a journalist and has three adult children.

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