The US economy is losing billions of dollars because foreign students aren’t enrolling

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The continued decline in international student enrollment since the fall of 2016 has cost the US economy $11.8 billion and more than 65,000 jobs, according to estimates from NAFSA, an international association of professional educators.

“There’s many variables, but largely it’s been the policies and rhetoric from the current administration that’s really driven the numbers to move in that direction,” said Rachel Banks, director of public policy at NAFSA.

“It’s not only the anti-immigrant rhetoric being expressed by this administration, there’s also increasing concern with regard to gun violence in this country,” said Banks. “There’s been a number of shootings and that gets reported worldwide, and parents certainly take all of this into account when they are thinking about where they want to send their children to study.”

New international student enrollments declined by 0.9% during the 2018-2019 academic year, following a 6.6% decline in new enrollments in the year prior, according to the most recent US Department of State Open Doors report. This marks the first time the United States has seen a three-year decline.

The Trump Administration has a different explanation for the lower enrollments. International students are discouraged by the high cost of US schools, said Caroline Casagrande, deputy assistant secretary for academic programs at the US Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural affairs. The Trump administration has made “more efforts than ever in outreach to international students,” and “to mitigate against the cost of education in the US,” Casagrande said in a call with reporters last week.

The cost of declining enrollment

The loss of international students is hurting many universities financially. At California State University Northridge, the decrease in international students between 2016 to 2019 has resulted in a 26% revenue loss of about $6.5 million, the university said.

For every seven international students, three US jobs are created or supported by spending in sectors including higher education, accommodations, dining, retail, and transportation, according to NAFSA.

The more than one million international students currently enrolled at US colleges and universities contributed nearly $41 billion to the US economy, and supported 458,290 jobs during the 2018-2019 academic year, a new NAFSA report finds.

International students are significant to school budgets, as many colleges and universities collect higher tuition from them. At Peninsula College in Washington State, international students are charged about $10,000 a year in tuition, while in-state students pay about $5,000.

Peninsula College in Port Angeles, Washington, has seen a 25% drop in international student enrollment over the last two years, and the school had to cut 13 positions and suspend programs due to a $800,000 deficit that was due mostly to shrinking enrollment.

“From our perspective, it’s a troubling trend on a lot of different levels that we would like to see turn around,” said Peninsula College President Luke Robins. “While the budget is concerning, a bigger thing for us is that we really value what international students bring to our college culture and organization.”

Robins said that several factors contributed to the decline, including the US dollar being at nearly historic highs compared to other currencies. This may have encouraged international students to choose other countries over the United States, he said, as it poses a better value proposition for them.

But the most significant factor is politics, said Jack Huls, vice president for student services at Peninsula College. In countries where the school traditionally had strong international enrollment, like China, it’s become more difficult for students to get visas.

“There’s most certainly politics involved there,” Huls said. “And that’s political issues domestically, as well as senior politics between the US and China.”

Worldwide competition for international students is also heating up, NAFSA’s Banks said. While the growth rate of students choosing to study in the United States declines, competitor countries are experiencing double-digit growth.

“Countries like Canada, Australia, and China have developed proactive recruiting strategies and are actively recruiting students, while we seemingly are not wanting to attract students,” Banks said.

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