As hundreds of thousands of students prepare to go back to school this fall, it’s important to consider the outsized role international students play in both campus life and the United States economy.
For the 2020 – 2021 academic school year, there were an estimated 914,000 international students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities, making up 4.6% of all college students. International students contribute significantly to the U.S. economy because many students gravitate toward fields in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) which enhances public and private research initiatives and creates jobs that help the U.S. compete. Those internaticmonal students in STEM majors are also a critical pipeline of skilled workers for the U.S. economy
During the 2020-21 academic school year, international students contributed an estimated $28.4 billion to the U.S. economy through their tuition paid to U.S. institutions as well as through their spending on housing, transportation, dining, and consumer goods while they live in the United States. This additional economic activity is significant for both the national economy as well as local ones: The National Association of Foreign Student Advisors estimates that 306,000 jobs were created and supported from international student enrollment during the 2020 academic year. On average, one job was created for every three international students enrolled in higher education.
Since 2017, the number of international students in the U.S. has worryingly decreased. The 2020-21 international student enrollment numbers are 16.5% less than they were in the 2018-19 academic year. International student enrollment reports for the 2021-22 academic year are not out yet, but initial reports from the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVIS) show that 2021-22 enrollment data could be similar to 2020-21 enrollment or possibly decreasing further.
While Covid-19 played a large part in decreasing international student enrollment numbers, data shows that the decline predates the pandemic. Many universities in other anglophone countries such as Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia have been competing with U.S. institutions for international students. On top of this increased competition, States are also believed to contribute to the decreasing international student numbers.
Attracting fewer international students has economic drawbacks. For U.S. higher education institutions to compete globally, they need the best students to train and work with faculty to develop innovative research that often stimulates entrepreneurship and job creation. If too many roadblocks like slow visa processes or high costs prevent international students from enrolling, U.S. higher education institutions begin losing their competitive research advantage. Lower international student enrollment also means native-born college students lose out in studying with and learning from students from other countries, which could hinder their competitiveness in the global labor market.
International students and scholars generate significant economic and cultural contributions to our campus communities and the U.S. in general. Many international STEM graduates are also potential high skilled employees for U.S. companies.
The Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration (PAHEI) outlined several recommendations to build and sustain international student enrollment at U.S. higher education institutions. These recommendations include enhancing the visa application process for students by improving transparency and wait times to help students meet critical education and research deadlines. PAHEI also recommends that the Department of State (DOS) leave academic decisions about qualifications to colleges and universities by ending denials based on English-language competency or institutional type (e.g., community colleges, English language programs). PAHEI provides a helpful immigration portal with state-level data on international, immigrant, and DACA-eligible college students.
Establishing policies that can help attract international talent benefits everyone—foreign and American students alike—and puts the United States in the best possible position to compete globally.