SEVIS Data Points to Declining Enrollments From Key Countries


Ever since the presidential election last November, the U.S. higher education community has monitored how the Trump presidency will affect international student flows to the United States. Five months into the new presidential administration, data from SEVIS and other sources provide early insights into the impact of the “Trump effect.”

The news is generally sobering. Even in the best-case scenario, the high growth rates in international enrollments that U.S. universities have experienced over the past 12 years can be expected to shrink. A comparison of quarterly visa issuance shows that overall in-bound student mobility has declined in the last two quarters, especially among key groups of students. Numbers from China have decreased, although not as sharply as those from Mexico. Data from India are mixed, while numbers from some top sending countries still continued to grow. But most indicators point to the conclusion that international enrollments in the U.S. will decrease in the immediate term.

That said, the trend – which could presage the first decline in absolute numbers since 2005/06 – is unlikely to bring about a tectonic shift in international student flows and does not preclude long-term growth of international student enrollments in the U.S. in absolute terms. A look back at trends in the years after the 9/11 attacks, when U.S. institutions saw a significant drop in enrollments followed by a substantial and sustained recovery, should offer some cause for optimism.

SEVIS Data: The Largest Drop from Fall to Spring Since 2014

The U.S. attracts the largest share of the world’s international students overall, and in 2016, international enrollments in the U.S. reached their highest number ever with 1.04 million students. Analysis of the most recently released quarterly data from the Department of Homeland Security’s Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), however, indicates that recent growth rates, which have been little short of meteoric over the course of recent years, may come to an abrupt halt. Current data show a significant overall decline in student visa issuances between November 2016 and April 2017.[1]The Department of Homeland Security’s Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) system tracks and reports on foreign nationals in the U.S. on F and M student visas. SEVIS data can be viewed as a leading indicator of future enrollment trends. During that period, the number of students from the top 24 sending countries decreased by about 19,000 or 1.85 percent. Overall numbers fell by 1.7 percent. Although small, this drop represents the largest downward fluctuation between fall and spring quarters since 2014 (the first year for which SEVIS data is available online).

It is worth diving more deeply into the SEVIS data to understand how changes in enrollments vary by country, and to discuss some of the multiple factors that may be at play.

  1. SEVIS data shows gains in enrollments from some world regions. The number of students from South America and Africa increased by 2.4 percent and 0.8 percent, respectively.
  2. Visas issued to students from the Asian continent (including the Middle East) decreased by about 1.6 percent. China and India together account for more than 47 percent of all current foreign students in the U.S., and mobility trends in these two countries are of vital consequence for many U.S. universities.
  3. Chinese enrollments dropped by almost 2.2 percent – the first quarter to quarter drop since 2003/2004. Given Chinese students’ overwhelming dominance of student rosters on U.S. campuses, the decline is one to watch. In recent years, gains in the number of foreign students in the U.S. have to a large extent been driven by surging enrollments of Chinese students. Since 2006, student arrivals from China have exploded by more than 400 percent, and China is by far the largest sending country. More than 31 percent of the international students in the U.S. during the 2015/16 academic year were from China, reaching an all-time high of 328,547. (IIE, Open Doors). Any changes in Chinese enrollments will have a strong effect on the overall number of international students in the United States.
  4. The number of students from India, the number two sender of students to the U.S., increased by 1.3 percent. This rise came despite inhibiting factors in India, such as the recent demonetization, which left many Indian students strapped for funds. However, it remains to be seen how Indian numbers will develop in the coming months. WES has seen a significant drop in U.S. applications from India, and various U.S. colleges are reporting decreases in applications from India as well. Many Indian students are drawn by the prospect of long-term employment on H-1B visas, a visa category the Trump administration seeks to restrict along with planned limits on OPT extensions. If enacted, curbs on OPT extensions and H-1B visas would likely have an impact on Indian student enrollments, particularly since more than half of H-1B visas since 2001 have been given to Indian nationals.
  5. Inbound mobility from Mexico fell sharply by 11.5 percent. Collectively, Mexico, Central America (including the Caribbean), and Canada are down 4.1 percent. F and M visas for Canadian students fell by 3.3 percent. Deteriorating relations between the U.S. and its neighbors caused by controversies regarding the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Trump administration’s plan to build a wall along the border with Mexico may already be having an impact on mobility.
  6. European student numbers dropped by 4.7 percent, mirroring similarly strong declines in enrollments from many European countries during the last downturn 12 years ago under the Bush administration.
  7. SEVIS data do not yet reflect a major, across-the-board downturn from Muslim-majority countries. The number of students from countries not named in either of the Trump administrations proposed travel bans, for example, is mixed. F and M visas for Pakistani students increased by 2.4 percent, while issuance for Saudi Arabian students was down sharply by 7.4 percent — a drop likely driven less by the Trump effect than by cutbacks in scholarship programs for Saudi students.


Key sender countries are highlighted in green.

Surprisingly, SEVIS data still shows a slight increase in Iranian enrollments. Iranian students have in recent years been remarkably resilient to the steep immigration hurdles already present in the United States. Many students and recruitment agents may presently be rushing applications in case the government succeeds in barring new Iranian students from entering the country.

That said, if the administration’s proposed visa ban on Muslim-majority countries is upheld by the courts, it will directly impact countries that presently account for 1.5 percent of international students in the U.S.  Moreover, many universities report decreases in applications from Muslim-majority countries that may lead to declines in enrollments in the near-term future.

Data From Institutions

Application trends in the University of California system – a top draw for international students from around the globe – offer one indication that we may see a broad drop in numbers this fall. For the 12 years leading up to this year’s application deadline, the number of international students applying to the University of California system grew at an average annual rate of 21 percent, or roughly, 2,500 applications a year. In April, however, U.C. campuses reported a one percent year-over-year decline in international applications – including a stunning 30 percent drop in applications from Mexico.

Even schools in the renowned Ivy League system and programs like engineering – both magnets for international students – are vulnerable. Dartmouth College, where about 12 percent of the most recently admitted class is international, reported a 30 percent decrease in international applications, reversing previous growth trends. Foreign applications to Dartmouth’s renowned master of engineering management program, meanwhile, declined for the first time in the program’s 25-year history. Similarly, enrollment drops at engineering departments nationwide are reportedly so significant that institutions have started to fear for both the future of innovation in the U.S., and, more prosaically, their revenue streams.

Overall, almost 40 percent of 250 U.S. colleges surveyed in March 2017 reported significant decreases in international applications. In May 2017, almost one third of the 25 largest public universities in the U.S. reported a decline in undergraduate applications from foreign students. In line with this trend, WES has also received considerably fewer U.S. applications in the first quarter of 2017 as compared to the first quarter of 2016.

Still, the picture is far from bleak. Many U.S. institutions, including ten of the largest public universities, reported substantial increases in international applications as of summer 2017.

The Student Viewpoint

One of the most critical factors in understanding mobility flows is to comprehend what students think. Surveys show an attitudinal shift among prospective international enrollees that bodes poorly for the short term. In the lead up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, some 60 percent of 40,000 surveyed international students stated that they would be less likely to study in the U.S. if Trump won. Other, more recent surveys largely confirm this shift, if at smaller margins. In February 2017, for example, about one third of 2,100 international high school students responded that they were less likely to study in the U.S. due to the current political climate. Another survey of 1,300 international and American students showed that more than half of international students were less interested in studying in the U.S., and that 80 percent of international and American students felt that the U.S. was becoming less welcoming to international students.

Overall, the picture that emerges from these surveys and interviews is that international students’ concerns are mainly focused on:

  • Uncertainties regarding visa regulations and worries about changes in these rules
  • Perceptions that visa requirements and screenings have become more stringent
  • Perceptions that the U.S. is less welcoming to international students coupled with concerns about personal safety and discrimination
  • A general decrease in popularity of the U.S. abroad
  • Concerns about long-term employment prospects and related visa issues

Interestingly, a survey from February 2017 also revealed an increase in negative perceptions of the U.S. among international recruitment agents who advise students about where to apply. More than 50 percent of surveyed agents stated that were less likely to recommend the U.S. as a study destination following the government’s attempt to impose a travel ban on six Muslim-majority countries, and that the popularity of the U.S. would be diminished as a result of the ban, at least temporarily.

The 2003/04 – 2005/06 Downturn as a Point of Comparison

According to the Open Doors data of the Institute for International Education, the number of international students increased by 621 percent during the three and a half decades leading up to the 2015/16 school year. The only decrease in foreign student enrollments in that period was three years long. It occurred from 2003/04 to 2005/06, and the total number of international students on U.S.; campuses dropped by 3.7 percent.[2] Year-by-year decreases were:  -2.4 percent in 2003/04, -1.3 percent in 2004/05 and -0.05 percent in 2005/06. IIE, Open Doors.

This earlier downturn is an important point of reference for the current situation, especially given the parallels in the macro political context. The first downturn occurred in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks. Immediately after, the United States increased visa restrictions, tightened security clearances, and implemented longer visa processing times. The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 precipitated a steep global decline in positive views of the U.S.

The Iraq war coincided with a drop in enrollments from key markets. Decreases in student flows from substantial sending countries like Indonesia, Kenya or Pakistan, however, were partially offset by continued increases in enrollments from countries like India, then the dominant sender of students to the United States. Unlike the current downturn, the previous slump also did not affect student flows from neighboring countries in North America. Canada sent increasing numbers of students throughout the downturn, and U.S.-bound student traffic from Mexico grew 4.1 percent in 2003/04; and 2.5 percent in 2005/06, after a brief two percent decline in 2004/05 (IIE, Open Doors).

Trump’s attempted travel ban and planned restrictions on employment visas demonstrate that the current government is ready to enact visa restrictions that go beyond those implemented under the Bush administration. Equally important, the harm the current policies inflict on the image of the U.S. abroad is comparable to, if not worse than, the impact Bush’s policies had on public opinion in many parts of the world. An international poll conducted by the PEW Research Center already during the election campaign in 2016 showed devastatingly low levels of confidence in then candidate Trump in all countries included in the poll.

A major difference, however, is that the foreign policies of the Bush administration focused most prominently on the Middle East and homeland security, while the government at the same sought to expand multilateral free trade agreements and strengthen relations, for instance, with Latin American countries, especially Mexico. The Trump administration, by contrast, pursues an agenda of economic protectionism and “America first” nationalism that impacts larger parts of the world and may, thus, result in a broader slump in enrollments. The proposed border wall with Mexico and NAFTA reforms, for example, are likely to have a negative impact on public opinion in Mexico and Canada and may further erode enrollments, particularly from Mexico. The recent decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord is not going to help the reputation of the U.S. around the world.

The two biggest question marks, of course, attach to China and India. As of now, the potential Trump effect on student flows from these two countries is unclear. One scenario that could have a negative impact on Chinese enrollments is a potential trade conflict with China. Should the administration pursue trade sanctions on China, the Chinese government may restrict the flow of students and tourists to the United States. Beijing is already said to be deploying these types of tactics to pressure the governments of Taiwan and South Korea, causing considerable economic harm to these countries.

Meanwhile, the potential closure of pathways for students to work in the U.S. after graduation, first on Optional Practical Training (OPT) visas and then on  H-1B visas, may have a disproportionate effect on Indian students, who are, as research by WES and others has shown, often motivated to select study destinations based on career perspectives and employment opportunities.

A Look at the Future

What can we expect going forward? The good news is that the 2003-2006 dip was both short-lived, and succeeded by drastic spikes in growth. Even if the Trump effect should, in the worst case, lead to a broader decline, cautious optimism about a rebound in growth rates is justified, both by past trends, and by underlying global push factors. By some estimates, the worldwide international student population is predicted to reach 8 million by 2025, an increase of 60 percent over an estimated 5 million students in 2015. Economic growth and demographic pressures will swell international student flows from multiple parts of the world. Many students, especially those from newly affluent social groups and countries, will continue to come to the United States, drawn by the sheer size, diversity, and reputation of the U.S. education system and its world-class universities. However, the current decrease in foreign student numbers that we are already seeing will, at minimum, slow down the exorbitant growth rates of recent years, and may further reduce the global market share of the U.S.

The U.S. share of the world’s international students is already in decline and dropped from 23 percent to 19 percent between 2000 and 2013, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Further decreases are likely. Consider, for example, that Australia last year hosted the highest number of international students in its history and that international education has now become the country’s third largest export after iron ore and coal.

In Europe, Germany just reported record-breaking foreign student numbers and experienced surging demand for its low-cost education from top sending countries like China and India. Perhaps most crucially, Asian countries like Malaysia and China are emerging as major international education hubs, absorbing growing numbers of mobile students, particularly from Asia itself, the world’s most dynamic region for academic mobility. Increasing numbers of universities, meanwhile, have started to bring their offerings directly to foreign students by establishing branch campuses abroad – a fact that will allow many students to pursue an international education without leaving their countries.

International education occurs in an increasingly competitive global market in which government institutions are major players. Growing numbers of governments vie for international students in the same way that they compete for foreign direct investments. It is now commonplace for countries to have well-defined internationalization strategies and set target quotas for international enrollments. The assertiveness and extent to which governments and universities presently pursue the influx of foreign students is a relatively new phenomenon, and reflects the fact that international education has become a multi-billion dollar industry in many parts of the world.

In this environment, U.S. institutions are currently in a difficult position. The heightened attention and governmental funding internationalization receives in many countries contrasts with the situation in the U.S., where the federal government just proposed a budget that would cut funding for educational and cultural exchange programs by 55 percent. The impetus is on university leaders and international admissions departments to accelerate their strategic internationalization efforts and to support lobbying and advocacy efforts by organizations like the Alliance for International Exchange, ACE and NAFSA. Equally important, U.S. institutions are well-advised to help repair the reputation of the U.S. abroad by supporting those international students already on U.S. campuses to ensure that they have access to robust international student services and rich academic experiences that make the U.S. education something worth striving for.


References   [ + ]

1. The Department of Homeland Security’s Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) system tracks and reports on foreign nationals in the U.S. on F and M student visas. SEVIS data can be viewed as a leading indicator of future enrollment trends.
2.  Year-by-year decreases were:  -2.4 percent in 2003/04, -1.3 percent in 2004/05 and -0.05 percent in 2005/06. IIE, Open Doors.
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