After big economic hits to the U.S. higher education sector over the past few years, experts say recruiting international students will be crucial to the industry’s recovery.
International student enrollment in U.S. universities has stalled and retreated in the past three years because of high costs, barriers to immigration and employment pathways, political rhetoric and perceived crime, according to data from the Institute of International Education (IIE).
The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated this decline with a 43% drop in the rate of international student enrollment for the fall 2020 semester, according to IIE.
And trade wars between the United States and China could cost American universities up to $1.15 billion in lost tuition revenue, a study from the University of California, San Diego says.
“Foreign tuition revenues are a crucial aspect of U.S. services exports,” the authors said. “Although much of the conversation on trade with China has focused on the goods trade deficit, there has been undeservedly little attention on the trade surplus with respect to educational services.”
About one-third of the more than 1 million international students in the U.S. come from China, according to IIE’s annual Open Doors report.
The report shows how income growth among upper-income families is linked to the export of educational services from the U.S. As Chinese cities exposed to trends of trade liberalization with the U.S. grew in wealth, they sent more students to study abroad. Freer trade policies alone accounted for about a quarter of Chinese students in the U.S. between 2004 and 2014, the report found.
The Trump administration imposed a tariff increase of 20 percentage points for Chinese products in 2018 in an effort to promote American products, making imported goods more expensive. The researchers found that about 30,000 fewer Chinese international students would attend American universities over the next 10 years. That could result in an 8% decrease in educational exports to China and up to $1.15 billion in lost revenue for American educational institutions.
“If the trade wars continue out into the future, a portion of the gain that happened as a result of free trade will decrease,” said Guarav Khanna, co-author of “Trade Liberalization and Chinese Students in U.S. Higher Education,” published in July 2020. “That free trade has driven the flow of students into the U.S., and restricting trade would partly reverse some of that.”
The rate of Chinese international student enrollment grew by 0.8% in the last year, according to IIE.
“That’s a really small number compared to the exponential growth we’d been seeing five years earlier,” Khanna told VOA. “Rates of international students were really high, and they really slowed down after 2016. They slowed down further because of trade wars.”
High tariffs impacting China’s wealthiest cities could help explain a decline in international student enrollment in U.S. universities. Meanwhile, competing countries are ramping up their recruitment.
In an opinion article for the Brisbane Times published February 19, John Brumby, chancellor of La Trobe University, wrote that since education is Australian’s fourth-largest export, international students should be welcomed and encouraged to attend institutions of higher education in Australia. Additionally, he wrote that Chinese international students stimulate the Australian economy and support at least 250,000 jobs in Australia.
“Students are choosing to study abroad, but they’re choosing countries like Canada and Australia, which not only are trying to make it easy for those students to go to these countries, but making it easy for students to stay and work after,” Khanna said. “In the last two years, the U.S. has made it more difficult for these students.”
The Biden administration looks set to continue the trade war on China, The Associated Press reported, which may continue to impact international student enrollment. No tariff cuts are expected by analysts. This may further a deceleration and potential decline in Chinese international student enrollment in the U.S.
One metric this year indicates that enrollment from other countries has “surged.”
“International applicant volume surged relative to 2019-20, highlighting meaningful growth in several home countries,” Jenny Rickard, president and chief executive officer of Common Application said in January. Common App is a standardized college application form used by nearly 900 institutions of higher education in the U.S. and internationally.
“While applicants from China declined by 18%, other countries exhibited noteworthy growth, including India (+28%); Canada (+22%); Pakistan (+37%); the United Kingdom (+23%); and Brazil (+41%),” Rickard explained.