Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, fewer and fewer international students were coming to study in the United States.
While the number of international students who newly enrolled in US colleges and universities during the 2015-2016 school year stood at more than 300,000, by the 2018-2019 school year, that number had fallen by about 10 percent to less than 270,000.
This trend will undoubtedly accelerate in the fall of 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. The American Council on Education predicts that overall international enrollment for the next academic year will decline by as much as 25 percent. That means there could be 220,000 fewer international students in the US than the approximately 870,000 there are now.
One reason is that the US has more COVID-19 cases than any other country. Other reasons include disapproval among international students regarding the US response to COVID-19 compared to other nations, the ongoing suspension of the processing of US visas and negative perceptions of the Trump administration’s immigration policies and rhetoric.
As an international education professional, I foresee six major ways that the expected steep decline in international enrollment will change US higher education and the economy.
1. Higher tuition
International students often pay full tuition, which averages more than US$26,000 per year at public four-year institutions and US$36,000 at private nonprofit four-year institutions. That matters because the tuition from foreign students provides extra funds to subsidise the costs of enrolling more students from the US. At public colleges and universities, the revenue generated from international enrollment also helps to make up for cuts in state funding for higher education.
One study found that for every 10 percent drop in state funding for higher education, international enrollment increased by 12-17 percent at public research universities from 1996 to 2012.
According to the Institute of International Education’s 2019 Open Doors Report, 872,214 international students are enrolled in US colleges and universities.
As states cut budgets due to the loss of tax revenue brought on by the economic crisis caused by COVID-19, many institutions of higher education will be forced to raise tuition. While this may help college and university finances in the short term, in the long term it will make it more difficult for international students to be able to afford to study in the US, which in turn will make the US a less attractive study destination.
2. A weaker economy
International students contribute an estimated US$41 billion to the US economy. However, the actual figure is surely much higher considering these students also pay various taxes to federal, state and local governments.
While a decline in international enrollment will financially hurt American colleges and universities, it will also decrease the profits of local businesses and the tax revenues of state and local governments. While college towns are likely to be the first affected, the long-term impact of fewer international students will ultimately be fewer jobs for Americans. How? Well, consider the fact that former international students founded nearly one out of every four startup companies in the US individually valued at US$1 billion dollars or more. Fewer international students now means fewer startups later.
3. Less innovation
One of the strongest factors that influences future international scientific cooperation is having students study in different countries. This ability to collaborate across borders is critical to addressing the world’s greatest challenges, from combating climate change to eliminating COVID-19.
Additionally, economists at the World Bank estimate that a 10 percent increase in the number of international graduate students in the US raises patent applications in the US by 4.5 percent and university patent grants by 6.8 percent.
Worldwide, research and development is valued at nearly US$2 trillion. The US share of that research and development is smaller today than it was in 2000. I believe having fewer international students will only serve to make it even smaller.
4. Job losses
One analysis found that international students support 455,000 US jobs.
International students who participate in Optional Practical Training — a program that allows these students to gain practical experience in their field of study by working temporarily in the US — help employers fill critical positions when they are unable to locate qualified US workers. This is particularly true in certain science and engineering fields. The Trump administration is looking at putting restrictions on the program, it was reported on May 24.
As international enrollment declines, US employers will have a harder time filling jobs. This may lead companies to look for talent in other countries — or possibly relocate jobs abroad.
5. Less exposure to diversity
Since only 10 percent of US students study abroad prior to earning their Bachelor’s degree, international students play an important role in exposing US students who never go abroad to international perspectives. In essence, international students bring the world to campus and increase access to global learning for all. The result is a more globally competent workforce, which is important considering that one in five jobs in the US is tied to international trade and 93 percent of employers value employees who can work effectively across national and cultural boundaries.
6. Less US influence
While more than 300 current and former world leaders were at one time international students in the US, other nations are making concerted efforts to catch up. If there are fewer students from other countries studying in the US, it will lessen the ability of the US to touch the hearts and minds of future world leaders.