In the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, the number of foreign students studying in the United States dropped for the first time in five years, according to new data released by the federal government, a potentially troubling development for schools that have relied on those students’ hefty tuition payments to balance their budgets.
Experts have speculated that Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric during the 2016 campaign and since taking office would dissuade students from coming to the United States, but until now the evidence has been only anecdotal.
Although several other factors likely contributed to the drop, the December 2017 numbers released this month by the government are the first to include freshmen who would have applied to college during the 2016 election and enrolled during Trump’s first year in office.
If this trend continues, colleges could be in trouble.
Schools across the country, including many in New England, have relied for years on full-tuition-paying foreign students in an era of declining enrollment, with fewer Americans able to afford high tuitions.
“It could be that we are moving toward a bit of a perfect storm, not in a good way,” said Ffiona Rees, board director of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
In recent years, the United States has begun to face increased competition from other countries that have become more proactive about recruiting top foreign students.
And there have always been factors about coming to the United States that worry foreign students, such as gun violence, expensive tuition, confusing applications, and limited postgraduation work opportunities.
The Trump administration might have been enough to finally push the numbers in the other direction, Rees said.
Overall, there were 1.21 million international students in the United States in December 2017, down from 1.23 million a year ago, according to the Department of Homeland Security, which grants most international student visas and keeps statistics.
Five years ago, there were 1.02 million, according to Homeland Security.
The data include not just university students but also grade-school students and those studying at vocational schools.
Homeland Security collects a snapshot of the number of foreign students periodically during the year but not always in the same months each year.
Between November 2016 and December 2017, there was a 1 percent drop in the number of students from Asia, the continent that sends the most foreign students to the United States, according to the data.
In November 2016, there were 948,000 students from Asia, compared to 936,000 a year later.
In Massachusetts, the number of foreign students did not drop, but it increased at a slower rate than in the past.
There were 74,000 foreign students in the state in December, compared to 72,000 in November 2016 and 70,000 the year before that.
The University of New Hampshire recently decided not to renew the contracts of several teachers who taught English as a second language, primarily to foreign students. The school said the staff reductions were the result of a decrease in demand.
In California, the state with the most foreign students, the number dropped by 6 percent, to 199,000.
Two years ago there were 210,000, according to the Homeland Security data.
In Texas, the number of foreign students dropped 2 percent, and in Illinois, 1 percent.
There are several other factors that could have contributed to this decline, and it is so far unclear whether the new numbers are a blip or the beginning of a long decline.
A Saudi Arabian government scholarship program ended, for example, and the number of students coming from that country dropped by 13,000 in the past year.
The number of students from India, another country that sends many students to the United States, rose by 3 percent.
A loss in foreign students could hurt the country economically, if nothing else.
The Institute for International Education estimated that foreign students contributed $2.7 billion to the Massachusetts economy last year and $39 billion to the nation as a whole.
Over the past year, Trump’s policies have frustrated colleges and others who work in the international recruitment industry.
Because of the administration’s travel ban for people from a select group of Muslim countries, many foreign students say they are afraid to travel home for breaks.
Others worry their country will be added to the list of banned locations in the future.
Meanwhile, just to the north, Canada offers top schools at a much cheaper price and has more welcoming immigration policies that encourage students to settle there permanently.
“Why should a nation shoot itself in the foot by projecting an anti-immigrant posture?” said Jill Welch, the deputy executive director for public policy at NAFSA: Association of International Educators, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of international education.
Rees, who is also the senior associate director for evaluation and international admission at UCLA, said the plateau or drop in foreign students will likely contribute to several divides happening within the industry overall.
There is a growing separation between wealthy, elite schools with a strong international reputation and ample funds to recruit, and those with fewer resources and less name recognition.
A drop in foreign students will likely also affect red and blue states differently, she said.
Schools in more liberal parts of the country that are perceived as more welcoming to foreigners are likely to see less of a decline more easily than those in more conservative pockets, she said.
“It could be that we would divide the haves and the have-nots even further,” Rees said.Laura Krantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.