Top Threats to Higher Ed in 2019
Threat No. 4 — International Student Declines
According to this year’s Open Doors Report (the Institute for International Education’s annual analysis of data and trends), the total number of international students enrolled in the U.S. is at an all-time high, but the number of new first-time international students dropped by 0.9% following a drop of 7% the previous year.
There has been significant coverage of the demographic shifts affecting higher education and the impending steep decline of traditional-aged students beginning in 2026. There has also been ample coverage of the recent drop in new international student enrollments in the United States in the past two years, but the combined impact of these two factors has not been sufficiently recognized.
There are many good reasons to cultivate international student enrollment on our campuses:
· International students diversify our campuses culturally, intellectually, and experientially;
· They enrich the global awareness and fluency of our domestic students;
· We develop advocates of the U.S. abroad as our alumni become leaders in their home nations;
· We have the opportunity to engage some of the best young minds from around the world in our domestic academic enterprise and during their initial post-graduate employment through OPT (Optional Practical Training); and
· They provide significant revenue to support the operation of our institutions for all of our students.
International students contributed $44.7 billion to the U.S. economy last year. The majority of that revenue first enters the economy through the colleges and universities they attend. The financial health of American higher education has been significantly buoyed by that tuition income. The benefit is not in the aggregate. In many communities, like ours, the university is a leading economic driver. Our financial strength redounds to our surrounding community in myriad ways. This model is repeated across the country.
Various reports have cited potential causes for the recent decline in international enrollments. These include:
· Slowing economic growth in some feeder nations;
· Growing options in their home nations;
· Students choosing to study in Canada and Australia;
· Growing concerns about safety in the U.S.;
· Leaders of some feeder nations threatening to limit visas; and
· Potential students believing they are unwelcome here because of political rhetoric.
As the population of eighteen-year-olds drops in the coming years, a positive financial outlook will require new sources of enrollment and possibly new types of revenue. Our communities and our nation will be wise to advocate for increased international enrollments as a primary strategy in mediating the effects of our own population decline.
If our institutions undertake these efforts collaboratively with their surrounding communities, we should also strive to share all of the benefits: financial, cultural, intellectual, and experiential. It is a scenario in which everyone wins.