The United States may be losing its luster as a destination for foreign students with the grades and the means to travel for a college degree, according to a new report.
The number of new international students in the United States during the 2018-19 school year hit its lowest point in six years, probably driven by rhetoric and government policies that are increasingly hostile to immigrants in the United States and by competition from other countries, including Canada, the United Kingdom, Russia, and Australia, experts said.
There were, nonetheless, slightly more foreign students in 2018-19 than the year before, but that number was largely driven by foreign students who remained in the country to work as part of their educational programs. In all, there were nearly 1.1 million international students in the United States, up by just 507 students over the year before and the lowest rate of growth in more than a decade, according to Open Doors report, an annual publication from the Institute of International Education.
Community colleges and two-year programs, along with non-research graduate universities, were among the institutions that saw the steepest enrollment drops, according to the report.
“While the rate of growth has slowed, the US remains the No. 1 destination for students worldwide,” said Mirka Martel, the head of research, evaluation, and learning at Institute of International Education.
The declines in international undergraduate and graduate enrollment could escalate the financial pressure on some American colleges, which rely on foreign students who pay full tuition to help balance their budgets.
Massachusetts fared better than other states, drawing about 71,100 students from abroad, a 4.3 percent increase from the previous year, making it the fourth most popular destination. Several other states with large shares of foreign students, including California and Texas, saw their numbers shrink.
Northeastern University ranked third behind New York University and the University of Southern California with the largest number of foreign students, more than 16,000. It was followed by Boston University (10,600), Harvard University (6,220), and MIT (5,070).
Most of the state’s large research universities saw healthy increases in their numbers of foreign students, but smaller institutions, such as Bunker Hill Community College and MCPHS, which was previously known at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, saw enrollments drop.
Universities with global reputations that focus on research and science and math programs are likely to remain attractive to foreign students, said Willis G. Wang, the vice president and associate provost of global programs at BU.
BU’s international student population grew by nearly 9 percent in the 2018-19 school year.
“We’re lucky to be in Boston,” Wang said. “Reputation and academic rigor probably helps in a climate where there’s a lot of negative rhetoric.”
University officials have been concerned in recent years that greater federal scrutiny and delays of visa applications by the Trump administration, the trade war with China, and fears of intellectual property theft by Chinese students on American campuses would discourage foreign students from coming to the United States. More than one in three foreign students in the country are from China, by far the largest share.
Chinese academics, including graduate students, have reported delays in receiving visas and more rigorous questioning by American security officials at airports.
In August, a Palestinian student set to begin his freshman year at Harvard was denied entry to the United States at Logan Airport. After a public outcry and lobbying by Harvard officials, the student was eventually allowed to enter the country and start classes.
Parents are also concerned about the volatile political climate when they are spending tens of thousands of dollars for their children to earn a US degree.
They worry that their children won’t be able to re-enter the country after summer vacation to finish their degree or gain the all-important American work experience as part of their education because of political decisions, said Sundar Kumarasamy, the vice president of enrollment management at Northeastern.
Northeastern, which saw an 8 percent increase in international enrollment in the 2018-19 school year, has adjusted its strategy to combat the tightening market. Northeastern has opened campuses in London and Canada for students who may not want to come to the United States. It has also hired more people who live in countries such as India and China to work directly with prospective international students and their families who are interested in Northeastern, instead of relying on global recruiters who have several universities as clients, Kumarasamy said.
“Students have a lot more choice of what they want to study and where they want to study,” he said. “We are preparing for an uncertain future.”
US State Department officials in a press phone call recently dismissed suggestions that Trump administration policies were to blame for shrinking undergraduate and graduate enrollment. Many factors, particularly the high cost of earning a US degree, are influencing decisions about whether to come for a college education, they said.
The market was softening before Trump took office, said Caroline Casagrande, a deputy assistant secretary for academic programs at the State Department, and the administration has spent money marketing US colleges and universities to Chinese students.
Experts said some countries, including China and India, are trying to expand and improve their own university systems, and Canada and Russia have become more aggressive in recruiting foreign students, in some cases offering generous scholarships and the opportunity to stay and work in the country.
“We have made it more difficult for international students to enroll and the rest of the world is catching up,” said Marguerite J. Dennis, an author and international education consultant.
The Open Doors report data is a year behind, and many colleges and universities are reporting continued declines in foreign student enrollment, Dennis said.
“The situation has gotten worse each year,” she said.
Many US colleges and universities will need to expand their strategy if they want to remain competitive and appeal to foreign students, she said.
For example, Africa is an increasingly attractive market, but US institutions will probably have to offer more online classes or partner with a college in African nations to help reduce the cost for students to earn an American degree, Dennis said.