US Universities in Search of International Enrollment Growth Opportunities

The recent IIE Open Doors data shows a continued decline in interest to study in the US. New international enrollment was 10% lower in 2018/19 as compared to its peak of over 300,000 in 2015/16. Much of the decline in undergraduate and non-degree enrollment is driven by softening in demand from Saudi Arabia, China and South Korea. Graduate-level decline is mostly due to slowdown with interest among Indian master’s students.

Level 2015/16 2018/19 Absolute Change % Change
Undergraduate 119,262 106,881 -12,381 -10%
Graduate 126,516 119,828 -6,688 -5%
Non-Degree 54,965 42,674 -12,291 -22%
Total 300,743 269,383 -31,360 -10%

2018/19 is a pivotal year for international undergraduate enrollment in the US as it is the first time that the absolute growth in the number of Indian students (1,467) is higher than that of Chinese students (287).

Open Doors 2019 shows the Fall 2018 enrollment. Analysis of enrollment data from select universities suggests that these trends are declining enrollment of Chinese students is likely to worsen for Fall 2019 while India may offer continued promise of steady growth on a smaller base (see example below). 

Indian University, Bloomington Fall 2017 Fall 2018 Fall 2019 % change  (2017-2019) Absolute change (2017-2019)
Total China 2,801 2,529 2,180 -22% -621
Undergrad China 2,130 1,846 1,505 -29% -625
Freshman China 527 341 268 -49% -259
Total India 1,055 1,042 1,115 6% 60
Undergrad India 302 351 393 30% 91
Freshman India 82 127 128 56% 46

Many American universities are now recalibrating their growth expectations for China, which has been the key driver for international student enrollment in the last decade. The positive momentum of Indian undergraduate students shows the emergence of expanding upper-middle income class, which is relatively price-insensitive and has the resources to invest in overseas education at the undergraduate level. In my previous article, I noted that growth in enrollment of Indian undergraduate students is driven by the children of the high-income professional class become college-ready. Many Chinese families were at a similar stage a decade ago when they were fueling the demand for studying in the US at the undergraduate level. However, the high tuition-fee in the US today as compared to the initiation of China boom a decade ago will limit the growth prospects of Indian undergraduate students. Maximizing the recruitment opportunities with the Indian undergraduate market would require a concerted, informed, and targeted approach. 

Looking at trends by the field of study, we see clear effect of OPT STEM Extension. This experiential learning program has been hugely popular among a segment of international students who are driven by the opportunity of gaining work experience and recovering a significant part of the cost of education. As a result, enrollment in non-STEM degree programs, including business programs, has been on a consistent decline. For example, international enrollment in “Business and Management” programs is down by 7.1% (-13,884) as compared to the previous year while “Math and Computer Science” is up by 9.4% (17,458).

While a complex interplay of many factors affects student choice, it is safe to say that challenges related to competition and affordability snowballed due to unwelcoming immigration policies and visa processes. Many American universities in and around 2016 were already struggling to increase their awareness among prospective students in new markets to overcome slowdown from China, Brazil and Saudi Arabia. For these universities, the new political context created even more challenges to attract international students as they now have to persuade students about the benefits of studying in the US even before they can talk about their universities. Attracting international students is no more about increasing awareness; it is about identifying the best-fit segment and delivering “value for money” through the student life cycle. 

>> Quotes and expert commentary by Dr. Rahul Choudaha