The decline of new international students to the US has nearly stopped

Chinese students listen to a speech by Xi Jinping.
Chinese students listen to a speech by Xi Jinping.
Image: REUTERS/David Ryder
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The steep decline of international students coming to US has ended. Enrollment data, released today from Institute of International Education and US Department of State, show foreign students enrolled for the first time in a US higher-education institution declined 0.9% from a year ago, recovering from the sharp drop of 6.9% a year before.

Despite the decline in new students, the total international student population in the US grew slightly from a year ago. It reached 1.1 million.

Changes in the Chinese student population drove the recent fluctuations. In the latest figures, 34% of all foreign students were from China. Tightening US visa policies and an ongoing trade war between US and China slowed the pace of Chinese students coming to US to study. Arrivals of first-time Chinese students into the US has declined in the past two years, as shown in the number of annual student visas issued to Chinese nationals. Some universities have taken out insurance to protect against losing the large chunk of tuition revenue that comes from Chinese students.

First-time student enrollments fell, but the cumulative population of Chinese students continued to grow. The total number during the 2018 school year was 1.7% higher than the prior year.

US president Trump signed an executive order in April 2017 making it harder for foreign students to stay in the US after graduation. But when Chinese parents decided to send their kids abroad, they weren’t thinking about whether their kids would have a chance to remain in the US after finishing school, according to Siqi Tu, a researcher at City University of New York whose study focuses on the recent influx of Chinese students in the US. Tu says a degree from a prestigious US college was their main target.

US schools are still recruiting in China. According to a survey conducted at the beginning of the 2019-20 school year, 58% of higher educational institutions said that they continued to prioritize international student outreach and recruitment in China. Half prioritized outreach in Vietnam, and 45% did so in India.

Even as international student figures dwindle, Chinese students still make up the largest share.