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Number of foreign students coming to US colleges drops

Gilles Sabrie for The Boston Globe/file 2015/Globe Freelance

The price of Saudi Arabian oil has plummeted. Brazil is recovering from recession. Anti-immigrant rhetoric has spooked young people across the globe.

These are just a few factors that led to a historic drop in the number of new foreign college students who came to study in the United States last year, the first decline in a decade, according to a study released this month.

While Massachusetts fared well compared to the nation as a whole — it continued to see an increase in foreign students — the rise was less robust than in the past. And if the trend continues, schools could face a significant financial challenge. Colleges in Massachusetts, like the rest of the country, rely on full tuition-paying foreign students to sustain their budgets in an era when Americans are increasingly unwilling, or unable, to pay expensive tuition.


The new data come from the 2016-17 school year, which started just before last November’s election. But educators expect President Trump’s targeted travel bans and anti-immigrant rhetoric to exacerbate the trend, signaling what could actually be an even larger shift in the lucrative international student market.

Overall, the number of new international students for the 2016-17 school year dropped by about 10,000 (3.3 percent) from the year before, according to the Open Doors report, an annual publication from the Institute of International Education. There are about 1 million foreign students in the United States and Massachusetts is the fourth-most-popular destination, with about 60,000.

The rate of increase in the number of new students has been slowing for several years, but this is the first time it dropped. Experts attribute much of the drop to the recent demise of government scholarship programs in Saudi Arabia and Brazil. The number of students from Saudi Arabia, whose government is struggling financially amid dropping oil prices, decreased by 14 percent. Students from Brazil, whose economy is also suffering, dropped by 32 percent.


There has also been an increase in foreign students staying in the United States after graduation for a temporary work program, which has inflated data for the past few years because they are still counted as students even though they have graduated, according to IIE. But experts say beyond those two factors, winds are changing in the international student industry.

“Something else has been going on, and it’s a real mix of factors,” said Peggy Blumenthal, senior counselor to the president at the institute.

Foreign students are increasingly choosing to study in English-speaking countries that are not the United States, with a record number choosing Canada. At the University of Toronto, for example, the number of foreign students who accepted admission offers rose 21 percent over last year, especially students from the United States, India, the Middle East, and Turkey. Other Canadian universities also saw record increases in the last year, which many attribute to Trump and an increasing number of foreign students, and even Americans, who want to avoid the United States.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts bucked the trend. It saw an increase in overall foreign students, albeit a smaller rise than in the past. In 2015-16 the number of students rose 7.2 percent, but it rose just 5.9 percent this past year. Foreign students brought an estimated $2.7 billion to the state economy in the 2016-17 school year, according to the study.


Northeastern is the top destination for foreign students in Massachusetts, with 13,201 students in the 2016-17 school year, up from 11,702 the year before. The next-most-popular Massachusetts schools among foreign students are Boston University, Harvard, MIT, and UMass Amherst. The students come mostly from China, India, South Korea, Canada, and Saudi Arabia.

Foreign students make up about 22 percent of BU undergraduates. The number of students rose to 8,992 in 2016-17 from 8,455 the year before, according to the new data.

Kelly Walter, Boston University’s associate vice president and dean of admissions, said BU has fared well, with some record increases this year (2017-18) in students from the Middle East, even, but the school is not complacent. It has plans to increase recruitment to new parts of the globe this spring.

“This is a rude awakening, frankly, about how difficult it may continue to be to recruit and enroll students from abroad,” she said.

The school has planned a recruiting trip to Africa, where officials will visit 16 countries, she said. They have also added Australia and New Zealand to their schedule, she said, and expanded recruitment in Vietnam. Recruiters are also headed to parts of Europe experiencing political upheaval, she said.

“What we’re trying to do is not be as reliant on Asia, and in particular China,” she said.

Marguerite Dennis, an international higher education consultant who is writing a book on the changing recruitment landscape, said these data are finally proof of subtle changes that have been happening for years.


“Everyone is going to blame Trump. That’s part of it, but that’s not all of it at all,” she said.

She said as universities in many regions of the world improve, in some cases adding professors educated in the United States, more students are staying local. Technology is also allowing students to enroll online, she said.

“What this all means is change,” she said. “It’s not a blip.”

Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.