International Enrollment Decline


By Akachukwu Nwosu

Are Foreign Students Turning Their Backs on the U.S? 

While the United States has remained a top study destination for international students worldwide, a recent decline in enrollment figures has caused for alarm.  According to quarterly data on student visa holders recently published by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the total number of international students at undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral levels declined by 2.7 percent from March 2018 to March 2019. 

Although there isn’t a precise reason behind the nationwide application and enrollment decrease, the country’s recent political climate may play a key role. President Donald Trump’s famously initiated travel ban, which barred people from entering the United States from multiple Muslim-majority countries, sparked fear amongst students coming to America to study. U.S. graduate school applications from Iran, for example, fell 27% between fall 2017 and fall 2018. 

A reduction in student visa issuance may also tie into the reason why foreign students are foregoing the United States altogether.  According to data from the State Department, the number of student visas issued annually for education in the United States fell from 677,928 in Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 to 389,579 in FY 2018—a decline of 42.5%. New and onerous screening procedures have elongated the visa-issuance process, causing students to miss months and even semesters worth of school. 

The delay doesn’t just stop at student visas. This year, many international students across the country witnessed severe delays while trying to obtain post-graduation work authorization under the Optional Practical Training program. In previous years, processing times for OPT applications usually took no more than 90 days. This year, they’re stretching to a whopping 120. 

An U.S.C.I.S. official said the agency, “recently experienced a surge in employment authorization requests related to Optional Practical Training. As a result, there is a small backlog of cases that are pending beyond the standard 90-day processing time. U.S.C.I.S. has implemented a plan to address this and return to standard processing times soon.”  

The official said processing for OPT employment authorization documents can currently take from four weeks to five months. 

While the United States regresses in yearly international student enrollments, other countries like the United Kingdom are taking strides to increase theirs. The nation’s Home Office recently announced on Sept. 11 that international students will be offered a two-year UK visa after graduation, with or without a job. UK Chancellor Sajid Javid celebrated the news via Twitter, stating that, “Britain should always be open to the best talent from across the world.”  

International students contribute greatly to the United States economy. According to NAFSA’s latest analysis, the 1,094,792 international students studying at U.S. colleges and universities contributed $39 billion to the U.S. economy during the 2017-2018 academic year. Foreign students also help foster a diverse student body, while enriching the learning environment with fresh cultural perspectives. With new administrative hurdles coming into effect every now and again, the future of international students in the United States remains indeterminate. 



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