Latest SEVIS Data: Number of International Students in the U.S. Is Declining

The latest data from the U.S. government’s Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) show that the number of active international student visas in the United States decreased by 0.84 percent between December 2017 and March 2018 – an acceleration over declines seen in the previous three quarters. SEVIS data is real-time data that includes student visas in the F and M category.

Released in April 2018 , the Department of Homeland Security’s new “SEVIS by the Numbers [1]” report compares data from March 2017 and March 2018. It concludes that the number of active student visas declined by 0.5 percent over this entire one-year period, largely due to a 5 percent decline is the number of students in associate degree programs. (By contrast, the number of cultural exchange visitors on J-1 visas increased by 4 percent.)

A chart showing the number of active F-1 and M-1 student visas from select countries in December 2017 and March 2018 [2]

The Department also provides more detailed data on its website (Mapping SEVIS by the Numbers [3]). Comparing data from the last four months, it appears that the decline in student visas accelerated between December 2017 and March 2018. During that time period, the number of active visas decreased by 10,251, from 1,212,080 to 1,201,829.

The report reinforces earlier indications in the latest data from the Institute of International Education, based on a survey of approximately 3,000 accredited higher education institutions. Their Open Doors [4] report showed a decrease in new international student enrollments of 3.3 percent [5] in the 2016/17 academic year. Assessments by other organizations are similar – the National Science Foundation [6] reported in January 2018 that international student enrollments in 2017 declined by 2.2 percent at the undergraduate level and 5.5 percent at the graduate level, respectively.

Some observers fear that the total drop in new international enrollments could reach 6 percent in 2018 [7] (based on a preliminary IIE snapshot survey of 522 institutions from November 2017, which indicated a decline of 6.9 percent in new enrollments in the fall of 2017).

Many U.S. higher education institutions blame the anti-immigration rhetoric and policies of the Trump administration for the decline. The American Council on Education (ACE) and 32 other higher education associations, for instance, submitted an amicus brief [8] to the U.S. Supreme Court when the court took up hearings on Trump’s latest travel ban in April 2018 that noted that the ban “sends a clarion message of exclusion to millions around the globe that America’s doors are no longer open to foreign students, scholars, lecturers, and researchers.” It “jeopardizes the vital contributions made by … [these individuals] by telling them in the starkest terms that America is no longer receptive to them.”

There are, of course, other factors that affect student flows to the United States, such as the cutting back of large-scale scholarship programs in key countries like Saudi Arabia [9], economic factors, and the growing attractiveness of competitor countries like Australia, Canada, and, increasingly, China [10].

Whatever the reasons for the decline, the recent SEVIS numbers do not send positive signals for international student enrollments in 2018. While it is impossible to extract macro trends from data that extends over just four months, and there is always a certain degree of fluctuation, the SEVIS numbers reflect modest decreases in student enrollments since December 2017 from a large variety of sending countries, as well as sharp decreases from some countries like Germany, where the number of active students decreased by fully 10.1 percent.

At the same time, there are positive signs for enrollment trends from a number of countries. Here are some takeaways:

In sum, there are some bright spots like Brazil or Nigeria and the overall picture is far from apocalyptic, but it is probable that student enrollments will decline throughout 2018 (and could possibly continue to decline further in the years ahead).

The recent slump in international student enrollments follows 16 years of spectacular growth – as recently as 2016/17, the number of international students in the U.S. reached a historic all-time high. Under the current circumstances, however, the question is no longer by how much will new international enrollments grow, but by how much will they decline and when will growth return?

The U.S. will remain the world’s leading destination for international students for the foreseeable future and growth may well return, but that position can no longer be simply taken for granted given the shrinking market share of the United States.

This outlook stands in stark contrast to the sky-high growth numbers in dynamic inbound markets like Australia, Canada, China or Germany. Australia just set a new record for international student enrollments. Foreign student enrollments increased by 13 percent [16] between 2016 and 2017, compared to an average growth rate of 4.5 percent over the past decade.

The latest 2018 report released by the Canadian Bureau for International Education boasted a 20 percent [17] increase in international student enrollments between 2016 and 2017 and an overall increase of 119 percent since 2010. The number of foreign students in China increased by more than 10 percent in 2017 an now amounts to 489,200 students [18], while the number of foreign students in Germany increased by 5.5 percent in 2017.