Not Coming to America: Falling Behind in the Race to Attract International Students

For decades, the best and brightest students from around the world have vied for a chance to study at U.S. universities. And for decades, America has reaped the benefits. International students spend billions of dollars a year in tuition and living expenses—a net financial gain for colleges and towns—and make outsize contributions in teaching, research, and innovation. These are contributions critical to both American higher education and to our nation’s ability to compete in the global knowledge economy.

Now, however, what once stood as a uniquely American advantage is at risk. Just as the number of students around the world seeking an international education is on the rise, the number choosing to study in the United States is seeing a sharp decline, leaving other nations to pick up the gains from the education market and to better compete for high-skill talent.

This brief provides an overview of the extensive value that international students bring to the U.S. economy and U.S. educational institutions, including the direct benefits they provide American students. “Not Coming to America: Falling Behind in the Race to Attract International Students” finds:

  • International students are vital to university teaching, research, innovation, and business, particularly in science, technology engineering, and math (STEM) fields. In 2015, more than 42 percent of STEM graduate students at U.S. universities were international students. In computer science and electrical engineering—the building blocks of the 21st century knowledge economy—more than 79 percent of U.S. graduate students were from abroad.
  • In 2016 and 2017, the number of new international students enrolled at U.S. universities fell for the first time since regular tracking began in 2004. Between fall 2015 and fall 2017, the number of international students enrolled declined by a total of 9.6 percent, with the steepest overall declines at colleges and universities in the Midwest and South Central regions.
  • Declining international student enrollment negatively impacts university budgets and local economies. International students—who pay two-thirds of their college costs with money from outside the United States—contributed $39 billion to the U.S. economy in the 2017-2018 academic year and supported more than 455,000 American jobs.
  • Although the number of international students around the world has more than doubled since 2000, fewer international students are choosing to come to the United States. America’s competitors are investing in recruitment efforts and aligning their immigration policies to attract foreign-student talent at the same time that U.S. policies seem to be convincing fewer international students to come study. By 2016, more than 17 percent of the college students in Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom were international students, compared to just 5 percent of postsecondary students in the United States. Overall, the U.S. share of the world’s international student population dropped from 27.4 percent in 2000 to 19.4 percent in 2016.

Read the full report here.

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New American Economy is a bipartisan research and advocacy organization fighting for smart federal, state, and local immigration policies that help grow our economy and create jobs for all Americans. More…