Number of international students in US declines for first time in over a decade

Dive Brief: 

  • The number of international students in the U.S. dropped for the first time in more than a decade during the 2019-20 academic year, according to the annual Open Doors report from the Institute of International Education and the U.S. Department of State. 

  • The number of foreign nationals studying in the U.S fell 1.8% to roughly 1.08 million students. It’s the first decline since the 2005-06 academic year, when there was roughly half the number of international students in the U.S. as there are now. 

  • The Trump administration recently proposed restrictions for student and work visas that could further dissuade international students from coming to the U.S. for college. 

Dive Insight: 

While the report offers a baseline for international student enrollment trends before the pandemic, a separate IIE survey of more than 700 schools found that international enrollment declined 16% this fall. New international enrollment fell by nearly half (43%), and some 40,000 students have deferred until a future term.  

The latter number could offer colleges some hope. “Students are waiting in the wings to come into the U.S. to pursue an education,” said Mirka Martel, IIE’s head of research, evaluation and learning, in an emailed statement. Meanwhile, the number of new international students in the country fell 0.6% in the 2019-20 academic year. This marks the fourth straight year this group has declined, though the losses have slowed.

The U.S. welcomed fewer international students in 2019-20 after years of growth

Academic Year Total international students Annual change
2015-16 1,043,839 7.1%
2016-17 1,078,822 3.4%
2017-18 1,094,792 1.5%
2018-19 1,095,299 0.1%
2019-20 1,075,496 -1.8%

Source: Institute of International Education

IIE described the data in rosy terms. “We are encouraged to see a fifth year of more than one million international students in the United States before the pandemic,” Marie Royce, a State Department official, said in a statement. 

Yet declines were especially sharp in parts of the world. The number of students coming from Saudi Arabia — one of the leading countries of origin for U.S. international students — fell 16.5% year-over-year. And more than 4% fewer students came from India and South Korea each. 

However, slightly more students (0.8%) came from China, which accounts for one-third of international students in the U.S. Other countries with rising enrollments include Taiwan, Brazil and Nigeria, though they all sent fewer than 25,000 students in the 2019-20 academic year. 

The declines follow several Trump administration policies that experts say make it harder for international students to come to the U.S., including visa barriers and travel bans. In the past couple of months, the administration has also proposed new restrictions for student and worker visas. President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to reverse the travel ban, and observers say he could easily undo some of the current administration’s proposals. 

The 2019-20 academic year also marks the first recorded time that international students have provided less economic value to the U.S. than the year before, according to NAFSA: Association of International Educators, which has been tracking such data since the mid-1990s. 

Researchers found they contributed $38.7 billion to the U.S. economy in 2019-20, down 4.4% year-over-year. The number of jobs created or supported by the presence of international students also dropped, by 9.2%, to about 416,000. 

“Despite the decline, it still is a significant contribution,” said Rachel Banks, NAFSA’s senior director for public policy and legislative strategy, adding that international students can also enhance colleges’ academics and culture. “It’s important to recognize that this is something that can be beneficial for us as we try to turn things around … with this pandemic.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with data about fall 2020 international student enrollment from IIE’s survey.

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