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US int’l student numbers at all-time high, decline in new starts “stabilising”

International student first time enrolment at US institutions continued to decline for the third year running in 2018/19, new Open Doors data has revealed. However, the 0.9% drop in new starts paints a much brighter picture than the sharper decline of 6.6% a year before.

The latest Open Doors data paints a "dramatically better picture" when compared to last year's decline in new enrolments. Photo: Jack Finnigan

China was the largest source of international students to the US with 369,548 students – a 1.7% increase

According to the 2019 Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange, international student numbers in the US increased by 0.05% in the 2018/19 academic year to reach an all-time high of 1,095,299, surpassing the one million mark for the fourth consecutive year.

Additionally, international students contributed $44.7 billion to the US economy in 2018, an increase of 5.5% from the previous year, according to the US Department of Commerce.

What we’ve seen is a dramatically better picture compared to last year’s decline”

For the tenth consecutive year, China was the largest source of international students to the US with 369,548 students – a 1.7% increase on 2017/18.

India, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Canada rounded out the top five – although numbers from Saudi Arabia have declined 16.5%, in part due to continued reduction of the King Abdullah Scholarship Program which funded overseas study for Saudi students.

Emerging market countries showed some of the strongest growth year over year, noted the report, particularly Bangladesh (10%), Brazil (9.8%), Nigeria (5.8%) and Pakistan (5.6%).

There was also an increase in students on OPT programs (post-study work opportunity related to fields of study), which grew by 9.6% to 223,085.

The report explained this is likely a knock-on effect from policy changes that allow STEM students to remain there in the US on OPT opportunities for 36 months after their studies.

OPT is one of our greatest strengths and we know that students value the practical experience that they gain in the United States, and it is one of our most helpful recruitment tools as a reason the student chooses to study here,”  deputy assistant secretary of State for Academic Programs, Caroline Casagrande, told a press conference.

Casagrande went further and said the US is interested in widening the net of companies offering OPT further: We have worked across federal agencies to streamline the process and promote understanding among universities and local employers about OPT…through workshops and seminars,” she said.

“Really with the idea that if OPT can expand, off of a large employer base, and includes small to midsize employers surrounding university communities, we can enrich our offering.”

However, while the overall number of international students increased on 2017/18, the total number enrolled in undergraduate programs declined by 2.4% to 431,930, and the number in graduate programs declined by 1.3% to 377,943.

The number of students in non‐degree programs declined by 5% to 62,341.

According to Allan E. Goodman, president & CEO of the IIE, the cost of US higher education is a major factor at play in the decreasing numbers, more so than the impact of the Trump administration’s policies.

American higher education is expensive – more expensive than other countries

“Everywhere I travel talking with parents and students, the number one concern they have is about cost. American higher education is expensive – more expensive than other countries,” Goodman said during the press conference.

“And I’d say there’s always a mix of factors that go into deciding who will come, where they’ll come, where they’ll go. But overwhelmingly that is what is on most on parents’ minds.”

What we’ve seen is a dramatically better picture compared to last year’s decline,” added Casagrande.

“In the last 10 years, international student numbers have grown each year, and so we know globally that students do value American higher education.

“The State Department, through its Education USA Network has been dedicating more resources than ever to explain to the international student community that at the 4,700 institutions of higher education and colleges within the US, there’s one at every price point and that we can work with those students to find a school that they and their families can afford,” she said.

“Education USA can work with those students to find a school that they and their families can afford”

Complementing the findings of the latest Open Doors report, the ‘Fall Snapshot Survey’ of more than 500 responding HEIs revealed an identical 0.9% decrease in international students enrolling for the first time as of fall 2019, with just over half (51%) of institutions reporting a decrease.

42% of institutions reported an increase in new international student enrolment, while 7% indicated the number to be the same as last year.

It showed the total number of enrolled students decreased by 1.6% overall, indicating improvement over the prior year when enrolments fell by 2.1%.

“Institutions remain concerned about attracting international students globally and continue to focus on recruitment overseas and within the United States,” read the survey.

It added that China (58 %), Vietnam (50%), and India (45%) are among the “select countries” prioritised by institutions for their recruitment efforts, while 59% of institutions report focusing on students already in the US, including international high school students and those attending community colleges.

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One Response to US int’l student numbers at all-time high, decline in new starts “stabilising”

  1. Thanks for the useful summary, Kerrie. Important to note that most countries do not include post-study work in their stats. Subtract OPT students and you get 872,214. Now revisit Australia’s total enrolment and it gives a different picture of the field.

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