Yet in 2017–18, American universities sustained a 6.6 percent drop in new enrollments by foreign students, continuing a trend that began in 2015–16 and causing much handwringing in higher-education circles and the media. In covering the dwindling enrollment, the Wall Street Journal quoted a college-recruitment specialist as saying that foreign “students are not feeling welcome” in some states, while the Washington Post cited “questions about whether President Trump’s nationalist rhetoric and policies have undercut overseas demand for U.S. higher education.”
Is the United States losing its edge as the go-to place for study abroad?
A first glance at the numbers might suggest so, but a closer look discloses that while growth in the international-student market has slowed, the total numbers are trending upward. In 2018, the number of foreign students studying here attained a new high, exceeding one million for the third year running, according to the Institute of International Education. Furthermore, the country has experienced, and recovered from, growth-rate dips in the past.
For colleges and universities, “internationalization”—defined, for our purposes, as the recruiting and welcoming of foreign students—brings many benefits. Students from around the globe contribute diverse perspectives and cultural values to campus life. They also enrich the academic institution and the local economy through their spending on tuition, living expenses, and travel. For research institutions, the contributions of talented scientists and engineers in training are enormous. Thus, leaders in the higher-education sector have good reason to want to recruit these students. And they know they face strong competition for them from other English-speaking countries, such as Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia.
It’s important to underline the distinctions between the two kinds of internationalization. Universities seek to attract top graduate students for their talent, but they pursue fee-paying students, many of them undergraduates, for a very different reason: to bring in revenue. As it happens, the recent decline in enrollment is not evenly distributed between these two categories.
Talent acquisition involves selecting the best students from around the world, mainly at the doctoral level, to work with professors at research institutions. American universities have excelled at this type of internationalization over the past six decades, largely because graduate students seek the unparalleled academic opportunities our institutions have to offer. The chance to work with the world’s top professors in some of the best-equipped academic laboratories has made the United States a magnet for up-and-coming scientists of promise.
This acquisition of top-notch talent, however, costs money—and lots of it. American universities waive tuition fees for these top graduate students and pay them healthy stipends. They do this because it is a good investment: it is no exaggeration to say that the American academic research enterprise, particularly in engineering, computer science, and pharmaceutical sciences, would be impossible to maintain without the labor of foreign doctoral students. When those students manage to stay in the United States—as professors, entrepreneurs, or simply highly skilled workers—they also make substantial contributions, economic and otherwise, to their communities and the country.