Will American universities continue losing international students to Canada?

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

The University of Toronto in Canada saw the largest increase in international student enrollment this academic year, benefiting the most from the decline to American schools.

With the application period in full swing for the 2018–19 academic year and incoming Class of 2022 freshman class, the question remains if American universities will continue the trend of losing international students. Last year the drop in applications and enrollment was attributed to Donald Trump’s election as president and his immigration policies. Canadian universities benefited from the American loss and received a bump in international applications and enrollments for the 2017–18 academic years. New surveys and reports released by IIE Center for Academic Mobility Research and Impact on Nov. 13, 2017, and Universities Canada on Nov. 22 indicate American universities loss seven percent of their international students, while Canadian schools saw an increase in the double digits. The two studies remained on the opposite ends when came to blaming Trump’s presidency for the differing numbers, with American reports downplaying the factor, while Canadian surveys saw a direct correlation.

A new report by the IIE Center for Academic Mobility Research and Impact and the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs released on Monday, Nov. 13, entitled the “2017 Open Doors® Report on International Educational Exchange” examined at the changing international student rates. The report indicated that just the year prior, the 2016–17 academic year, American universities saw an increase in the peak of total international student enrollment, but a decrease in new international students coming to the US to study.

The 2017 Open Doors report indicates that the US saw a “record” number of international students with 1.08 million studying, the second academic year with over a million students. Open Doors claimed, “This also marks the eleventh consecutive year of continued expansion of the total number of international students in U.S. higher education.” Despite the good news, there were plenty of negatives when looking at the number of new students enrolling; there was a three percent drop from the previous academic year, 10,000 students less to 281,000 new enrollees.

The 2016–17 academic years had only a three percent increase in international students compared to the previous year, the smallest increase since the 2009–10 academic years. Open Door pointed out, “This is the first time that these numbers have declined in the twelve years since Open Doors has reported new enrollments.” The decreases primarily come from two countries Saudi Arabia and Brazil because of the decrease of scholarships. Although the report claims, economic factors trump any political reasons for the decline.

The Open Door gave a glimpse at the present academic year, which shows that the trend is continuing with an additional seven percent loss in new international student enrollees. Although this is the national trend, the results are much different at different universities and colleges. According to IIE, “45 percent of the campuses reported declines in new enrollments for fall 2017, while 31 percent reported increases in new enrollments and 24 percent reported no change from last year.”

International students contribute the most in the STEM fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, serving as support faculty as research and teaching assistants. IIE President and CEO Allan E. Goodman commented on the decline, “Students continue to be attracted to the high quality and diverse opportunities offered by U.S. colleges and universities. But it is critical for U.S. institutions to set strategic goals and be proactive in reaching out to students and families in a wide range of countries in the coming year, and for the United States to keep its academic doors open to students from all over the world.”

IIE released another report at the start of the academic year entitled “Shifting Tides: Understanding International Student Yield for Fall 2017.” The study conducted in March 2017, was created in collaboration with the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admission Officers (AACRAO). The study examined the international enrollment rates at 165 colleges and universities in the different regions of the country.

The results proved that President Trump’s policies had little effect on attracting international undergraduate students going from 26 percent in 2016 to just a two percent drop and 24 percent in 2017. Graduate students, however, were more deterred from studying in the US. Colleges and universities saw a 7 percent drop in international students for Masters’ degrees. Last year the number was 26 percent down to 19 percent of graduate student population this year. According to IIE “38 percent of surveyed institutions indicating a decrease in international student applications, 36 percent seeing an increase and 26 percent seeing no change compared to the prior year.”

The decline happened at 46 percent of the schools that participated, but the results varied in the four regions of the country. The South saw the largest drop in international students, with 5 percent from 35 to 30 percent; however, the Northeast did not see any difference remaining at 24 percent. Regional differences have to do with the politics of the areas and schools. The South is the country’s most conservative area, while the Northeast is the most liberal and home of the Ivy League universities that continually attract international students. Four states attract the most international students, California, New York, Texas, and Massachusetts, but only Texas deep in Trump country saw a decline. Texas’ decline was a huge 18 percent loss in international students this year from the 2016 year, 44 percent down to 35 percent.

The United Kingdom’s Times Higher Education sees the decline in international students enrolling at American schools a trend that is longtime in the making and independent of Trump. Analyst Marguerite Dennis wrote an op-ed last January 2017 entitled, “Dwindling US international student numbers? Don’t blame Trump!” On the eve of Trump inauguration as the 45th president of the United States, 60 percent of international students from 118 countries said a Trump presidency would deter their enrollment in US schools a number that never materialized. Canadian saw a surge in American students visiting their perspective and future student websites. The University of Toronto saw 10,000 visitors the day after Trump’s election, up from only 1,000 the day before when the news predicted democratic nominee Hillary Clinton would win the election.

Dennis looked at historical data and found that the decline is a trend 17-year trend in the making commencing in 2001. At that point, the year of the terror attack on the World Trade Center “28 per cent of all international students enrolled” in American schools, by 2014 that number decreased to 22 percent. Dennis attributes two reasons for the decline, less Chinese students enrolling and rising tuition costs. Dennis claims, “In 2014–15, there were 304,040 Chinese studying in the US, 10.8 per cent more than the previous year. However, in 2013–14 the increase was 21.4 per cent.” Additionally, since 2008 tuition at American schools has increased by 28 percent.

IIE claimed that students from the Middle East and India were the most reluctant to enroll in the US because of Trump’s travel ban and were the most concerned about their ability to obtain a student visa. Indian students are fearful of enrolling because an Indian engineering student studying in the Midwest was killed in a hate crime. IIE agrees with Dennis that affordability is a major concern for students coming from “sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, Canada, Oceania, Latin America and Asia,” except China.

Canadian universities are benefitting the most from international students’ reluctance to study in the US and a lesser extent in Great Britain. This academic year, Canadian universities saw a “record number” of international students enrolled in their institutions. In Canada, they attribute to the growing number of international applicants directly to Trump’s election and his presidency, and Britain’s Brexit vote to leave the European Union, but they are not certain how to maintain their growing student population and translate it into permanent Canadian residents. The major wave of applications commenced with Trump election, with Canadian schools seeing a bump of 20 percent more international applicants.

Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada, IRCC claims there was a 17.5 percent increase in international students from the fall of 2015 to the fall of 2016. According to the Pie News, “the number of new students entering Canada for the first time reached nearly 270,000 — up 22% from 2015 figures.” Universities Canada released data for the fall 2017 enrollment on Nov. 22, calculating only the number of overseas international students. They determined that there was an 11 percent increase of overseas students in 2017 from 2016. As The Times Higher Education reports “the total number of full- and part-time overseas university students in the country to 192,000.”

Universities Canada took their information from Regional university associations, which include, “The Association of Atlantic Universities, the Bureau de Coopération Interuniversitaire (representing Quebec universities), the Council of Ontario Universities and Universities Canada.” In total 96 institutions shared their data for the survey. British Columbia is the province attracting the most international students with a 15.6 percent increase; the province is the home of one of the country’s top three schools, the University of British Columbia. The Canadian government wants to continue to capitalize on the trend and increase the number of international students to 450,000 by 2022.

Canada’s top schools The University of Toronto, the University of British Columbia and McGill University are attracting the brunt of the students. This year the U of Toronto had 17,452 international students at the undergraduate and graduate level representing 20 percent of the student population. The numbers are double than those of ten years ago, wherein 2007 they had 7,380 international students compromising only 10 percent of the student population.

The University of Toronto has the most international students on the continent, followed by the US’ New York University, while the UBC is third. UBC had 14,433 international students in 2016 up from 9,144 in 2012. McGill’s numbers are equally impressive, this academic year their international student population hit 30 percent and is over 12,000 out of 41,000 students. McGill noted that the number represents an “over 10 percent increase from last year and 45 percent from 5 years ago.”

The students are coming from 150 countries, the majority from China, India, South Korea, France, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Japan, Brazil, to a lesser extent Turkey. There is also an increase in American students enrolling in Canadian schools. China has the most students in Canada representing 34 percent of the international student population 57,000 students in 2014, followed by India with 14 percent; only three percent of American students come to Canada for a university education.

Applications to Canadian schools surged last fall and winter from American students distraught by Trump’s electoral victory, but those numbers never materialized in enrollments. The U of Toronto saw an increase of 70 percent from American students, McGill had a 30 percent increase from the US and 16 percent internationally, while UBC saw a 26 percent increase in applications from American students. In 2014, Canada hosted 9,000 American students in their universities.

Paul Davidson, president of Universities Canada claims the increase in international students can be attributed to the country being “known worldwide as a nation that values diversity and inclusion, and our universities are a big part of that.” Davison continued praising the country to the THE, saying, “Students around the globe are increasingly choosing the internationally recognised quality of a Canadian university education, and the benefits for Canada are tremendous.”

In contrast, Richard Levin, executive director of enrolment services and university registrar at the University of Toronto see the enrollment bump being because of the backlash in the US and the UK. Levin told CBC News “Clearly there are things about the international situation — worries about stability, Brexit and the U.S. political environment — that have changed or increased international students’ interest in looking beyond their own countries and beyond the U.S..” Continuing Levin expressed, “Now in places like that, students are looking for alternatives and Canada is presenting as a good one in terms of stability, safety, and inclusiveness.”

Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University), is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor. She is a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.

Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University) is a Professional Librarian (CBPQ) & historian. Former editor @ History News Network & reporter @ Examiner.com.

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