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Growth in International Student Enrollment Slows, Even as Impact of Global Perspective Intensifies

Growth in International Student Enrollment Slows, Even as Impact of Global Perspective Intensifies

Even as the number of international students in the United States increased by 3 percent over the prior year, the count for those enrolled at a U.S. institution for the first time in fall 2016 declined by nearly 10,000 students — the first time the "Open Doors" project has seen a drop of those numbers in the 12 years since it began this reporting.

At the same time, the Association of Public & Land-Grant Universities (APLU) issued a report to its member institutions, calling on them to show leadership in "internationalization" efforts.

Open Doors is run by the Institute of International Education, supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Each year the non-profit organization conducts a survey among about 3,000 U.S. institutions to gather data on international students in the United States.

According to the "2017 Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange," in the 2016-2017 school year, U.S. colleges and universities hosted a record-breaking 1.08 million international students — for the 11th consecutive year of growth. The top five places they came from were China, India, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Canada. The top five states they headed to were California, New York, Texas, Massachusetts and Illinois. (Each state saw increases in international students during the current academic year.)

However, only 291,000 students enrolled for the first time in the current school year, growth of just 3 percent compared to increases of 7 percent to 10 percent for the previous three years.

The report pointed to two broad factors influencing this "slowing of growth": a "mix" of global and local economic conditions and expanded opportunities for higher education closer to home. The biggest decreases of students, particularly for non-degree study (such as short-term exchanges and intensive English language programs) were found in Saudi Arabia and Brazil, where government scholarship programs were scaled back. The flattening trend would have had its seeds of origin planted two years ago, in 2015-2016, since that's when students on campus in fall 2016 would have applied and made their decisions regarding attendance.

Credit for the increases of the past couple of years, according to the research, can be given to a rise in the number of students staying longer in the country after completing their degree studies in order to pursue "optional practical training" related to their academic fields. That segment rose by 19 percent to more than 175,000 students, driven by "a strong desire" among international students to gain career skills and connections before they head back home.

The report also examined data related to the number of American students studying abroad. In 2015-2016, 325,339 of this population received academic credit for their study abroad, a bump of four percent from the previous school year. Their top five destinations were the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, France and Germany.

The institute also peered into the future by surveying nine education associations this fall, to understand what American institutions will see for the 2017-2018 academic year. The flattening is expected to continue, with a greater decrease — 7 percent — in the number of first-time students. It wasn't bad news across the board, the researchers noted. While 45 percent of respondents saw declines in new enrollments for fall 2017, 31 percent reported increases; the remainder saw no change from the previous year.

The report emphasized that international students bring monetary benefits with them. In 2016, for example, the U.S. Department of Commerce estimated that this population of students added $39 billion to the U.S. economy by virtue of spending on tuition, housing and other expenses. Many of these students serve as teaching and research assistants, particularly in STEM fields, and "their diverse perspectives help enrich classroom learning for U.S. students," the report noted.

"As more countries become active hosts of international students and implement national strategies to attract them, the competition for top global talent in higher education and the workforce will only intensify," said the institute's President and CEO, Allan Goodman, in a prepared statement. "Students continue to be attracted to the high quality and diverse opportunities offered by U.S. colleges and universities. But it is critical for U.S. institutions to set strategic goals and be proactive in reaching out to students and families in a wide range of countries in the coming year, and for the United States to keep its academic doors open to students from all over the world."

APLU's new report, "Pervasive Internationalization: A Call for Renewed Leadership," touches on the topic of a growing influx of international students and their impact on campuses, while also examining the growing diversity of student populations and the effects of globalization on "parts of society struggling to adapt and thrive in the new global economic environment."

APLU surveyed "senior international officers" in several areas: facilitating and fostering international research, integrating internationalization into the curriculum, engaging instructors and supporting students in international activities, and investing in building up global operations systems to support institutional activities abroad.

Top priorities indicated by APLU member institutions in the area of international activities are these (in ranked order):

  1. Making the case for internationalization efforts "at home";
  2. Expanding study abroad, by increasing student and faculty participation, dealing with risk management issues and improving access;
  3. Figuring out funding and developing sustainable models for increasing and diversifying the financial aspects;
  4. Expanding partnerships for research, exchanges and collaboration;
  5. Growing international enrollment and retention, including diversifying recruiting and improving the school's global reputation;
  6. Centralizing international enrollment and retention; and
  7. Developing a strategy that takes into account the impact of global engagement and tracks and reports on the return on investment for global activities.

The most frequently mentioned obstacle to success was financial constraints, for which the institutions blame state budget cuts at least in part. Other challenges: too many competing priorities within the schools and lack of support from the head of the university.

While many respondents in the APLU survey could point to "areas of success in the academic and research enterprise," there is still much to do, the report concluded. "Public research universities must continue to prepare current undergraduate and graduate students to be the next generation of leaders within an increasingly sophisticated, multifaceted and frequently confounding political and economic world."

The Open Doors 2017 project sells its main report for $79.95 online. Additional resources, such as an executive summary, specific data and state- and country-specific reporting are openly available on the Institute of International Education website.

The APLU report is openly available for download on the organization's website.

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