By Frederick W. Pierce, IV

International students have become an increasingly important segment of in the United States higher-education community, totaling nearly 1.1 million students representing 5.3 percent of total higher education enrollments, according to The Institute of International Education’s opendoors® 2017 “Fast Facts.” NAFSA’s “Economic Benefit of International Students, 2016-17” reports that these international students generate an estimated $36.9 billion annual economic impact nationwide that supports more than 450,000 permanent jobs. International enrollments have grown by 85 percent over the last decade and have been growing at a rate of 50,000 students per year — the equivalent of two large universities per year.

As important as the economic impact these students produce for our economy are the enrichment and culture they offer to the educational experiences of all students at their universities in the context of a global economy and increasingly more diverse United States population.

Since the election of President Trump in November 2016, however, many higher-education leaders have communicated concerns about the short and intermediate term future of international student enrollment in the U.S. Concerns have been voiced that more aggressive foreign-policy positions related to immigration, travel and trade — particularly as it relates to China, Mexico and the Middle East — would create delays and increased difficulty in obtaining required F1 and M1 visas, accelerate deportation or stymie re-entry of foreign nationals, and instill fear of ill treatment in the U.S.

While all of those predicted impacts resulting from the president’s foreign-policy initiatives have come about to some extent, the most recently available data shows that international student enrollments are holding steady. According to ICE’s Student and Exchange Visitor Program’s Information System (SEVIS by the Numbers, Bi-Annual Report on International Student Trends, April 2018), active international student enrollments were down a mere 0.5 percent (or 6,210 students) in Spring 2018, and degree-seeking students amongst those were actually up 0.8 percent. That is very good news for higher education and the economies surrounding the most popular U.S. universities amongst international students.

To put this in perspective, America’s tightening of student visa issuances in response to 9/11 caused a more significant impact — although also not material — on international student enrollments. In aggregate, international student enrollments declined by 21,557 (3.7 percent) between 2003 and 2005 (and have rebounded ever since), while international student enrollments have remained essentially flat thus far during the tenure of the Trump Administration. The takeaway is that the U.S. remains viewed as one of the safe havens in the world, our higher education system is still revered as the best in the world, and many students intend to gain knowledge, language, and relationships through a college education in the U.S. that they will take back with them to their home countries after graduation (or remain in the U.S. and do international business with their home nations and others from the U.S.).

There have been some interesting, but mostly not too surprising, shifts in the origin of international students this past year. Enrollment is down from Yemen (-41 percent), Libya (-19 percent), Saudi Arabia (-17 percent), Venezuela (-9 percent) and Russia (-3 percent), as well as from Sweden (-11 percent), Switzerland (-10 percent) and Norway (-7 percent). Conversely, enrollments have increased from Brazil (+13 percent), Argentina (+7 percent), and Chile (+6 percent). However, only Saudi Arabia and Brazil are amongst the top-10 nations of origin for international students in the U.S., and the aggregate changes in these other countries — while notable as percentages — are not material to aggregate enrollment trends as a whole.

The real conversation about international student enrollments focuses on China and India, from where about 50 percent of international students hail. While those two countries have ranked as the top-two exporters of college students to the U.S. for at least 15 years, Chinese students have grown 5.5-fold from 63,211 in 2001-’02 (10.8 percent market share) to 350,755 in 2016-’17 (33 percent). Over the same time frame, Indian students have nearly tripled from 66,839 (11.5 percent market share) to 186,267 (17.3 percent). These two countries are expected to drive international student enrollments trends in the U.S. into the foreseeable future.

Mexico is still a top-10 exporter of students to the U.S., although it doesn’t rank in the top-five countries sending students to California. The top 5 (China, India, South Korea, Taiwan, and Saudi Arabia) represent about two-thirds of international students in California. The number of Mexican students studying in US is up 59 percent since 1999 from 10,607 to 16,835 — enrollments were very stable in the 2000s (this number varied up and down between 12,500 and 14,850 and averaged 13,328). The number of U.S. students studying abroad in Mexico was only 52 percent (5,178) in 2015/’16 (most recent data) of its peak in 2005/’06 (10,022). I speculate this is largely due to safety concerns related to crime related to the drug cartels.

Similar to the size and role of California’s economy in the U.S. and world economies, with more than 156,000 international students enrolled in the state (15 percent market share), California is the largest destination of choice for international students in the U.S. California universities are home to three or more times the number as any other state except New York (number 2 at 118,424), Texas (number 3 at 85,116), and Massachusetts (number 4 at 62,926) — where California still is host to sizably more international students. The top 20 universities host 19 percent of the nation’s international students, four of which are in California, including University of Southern California (number 2 – 14,327), UCLA (number 7 – 12,199), UC San Diego (number 11 – 9,065), and UC Berkeley (number 15 – 8,000).

California boasts a very diverse economy and population, and the international enrollment at its universities is a boon to the state. International students produce a $6-billion economic impact on California’s economy supporting more than 70,000 permanent jobs, according to NAFSA: California Benefits from International Students 2016-’17. International enrollments at 14 California universities support more than 1,000 jobs.

While current U.S. foreign policy directives and actions may cause a temporary slowing of the growth of international students, the fact remains that international students will continue to increase their market share of enrollment in the U.S. and California long into the foreseeable future. This is good for the U.S. and good for California.

Frederick W. Pierce, IV is President and CEO of Pierce Education Properties, a top-15 national owner and operator of student apartments with a portfolio of more than 15,000 beds at 24 universities in 17 states. He is also a trustee emeritus of The California State University Board of Trustees, trustee at Franklin Pierce University, chairman of the Fowler College of Business at SDSU, and board member of the Wine Business Institute at Sonoma State University.

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