International Student Enrollment Trends Differ by Types of Universities: Research

American universities and colleges are facing a dire challenge of an overall decline in student enrollment. Between Fall 2010 and Fall 2016, higher education institutions suffered a drop of 7.3%, which translates into 1.5 million fewer students in 2016, according to National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

While the domestic enrollments had been declining, one area of optimism had been growth in international student enrollment. The number of international students in the U.S. increased from 723,277 in Fall 2010 to 1,078,822 in Fall 2016, an increase of 49%, according to NAFSA: Association of International Educators. In the same period, the financial contributions of international students grew at a faster pace of nearly 83% to reach US$ 36.9 billion in 2016/17.

However, this growth was unevenly spread by the type of institution. Doctoral Universities drove majority or 88% of the growth. Between 2010/11 and 2016/17, international enrollment at Doctoral Universities increased by over 296,000 students while Baccalaureate Colleges and Master’s-Colleges and Universities experienced an increase of just over 42,000 international students.

Higher education institutions are entering a new era of intensified competition and increased uncertainty for attracting international students. Recent data from National Science Foundation indicates that international enrollment is already declining, and many institutions are unprepared for this change. An analysis of the data suggests that the U.S institutions enrolled 31,520 fewer international students in Fall 2017 as compared to Fall 2016. At average tuition and fees of US$ 25,000, higher education institutions are likely to lose potential revenue of US$ 788 million for the first year of studies alone.

Analyzing the shifting patterns of international student mobility from the framework of three Waves defined by the key events, we noticed that many American universities are facing intense competition in times of unfavorable political climate. Megatrends at the intersection of sociopolitical, demographic, and economic shifts coupled with the global ambitions of universities are resulting in continued qualitative and quantitative growth of English-taught programs in Asia and Europe. In sum, Wave III indicates a trend towards increasing competition to attract international students which would result in a slower pace of projected growth of 18% in international enrollment in the U.S. during this period as compared to Wave II.

In sum, Wave III of international student mobility calls for innovation in recruitment and student success strategies that are not only cost-effective but align with shifting needs and behaviors of students. The success of many institutions will depend on how quickly and effectively they innovate and adapt to the new environment of the Third Wave.

Access full paper and data analysis of the paper entitled “A Third Wave of International Student Mobility: Global Competitiveness and American Higher Education,” published by the Center for Studies in Higher Education, University of Berkeley.