Fewer international students are coming to American universities. That’s a problem.


Note: This guest column was submitted by Michael A. McRobbie, president, Indiana University. It appeared in the Chicago Tribune on February 19, 2018.

The number of international students studying at U.S. colleges and universities declined last year for the first time in more than a decade. For a host of reasons — including the harm the trend will do to America’s standing around the world, to its most competitive industries, and to universities’ bottom lines — this is tremendously problematic. Universities nationwide, including mine, must arrest this downward trend.

America remains the most welcoming nation in the world to international students. Last year, more than 1 million foreign students studied in the U.S. At my institution, Indiana University, we welcomed nearly 9,000 students from 144 countries in 2017, one of the largest cohorts of foreign students in the U.S.

The national trend, however, is one of slowed growth in the number of new international students, which declined across the nation by nearly 10,000 students, or 3 percent, in 2016 — the first recorded drop in 12 years.

A number of factors contributed to this decline, including greater global competition for international students. Harmful new U.S. immigration policies and harsh anti-foreigner rhetoric are not helping, and could, in fact, accelerate this trend.

Much of the concern has focused on the negative impact of this decline on the balance sheets of some American universities. There is no denying that at some midsize and smaller colleges and universities, smaller international enrollments are squeezing already tight budgets.

But dollars and cents are not the whole story. We should broaden the conversation to demonstrate the full range of ways America benefits tremendously by welcoming international students to its shores.

For instance:

  • They enrich our campuses and the communities we serve.
  • They bring valuable cultural perspectives to our classrooms and campuses.
  • They expose U.S. students to new ideas, helping them to reflect on the increasingly diverse compositions of our communities.
  • Most important, they contribute to an educational environment that prepares our students to be “globally ready” for an interconnected and competitive future.

Case in point. In a decade in which my institution nearly doubled international student enrollment, we also witnessed dramatic growth in the number of student organizations that have international interests (now over 200), a re-energizing of programs in language and cultural studies, and an infusion of global focus and international networking.

Many foreign students have had to succeed in the highly competitive educational environments of their home countries, master English to gain admission to American colleges and universities through very selective screening processes, and then graduate from a completely different educational system. All of this clearly indicates that these students are among the best and the brightest in their countries. It is no surprise, then, that over time they become leaders in their countries in areas such as business, education and government.

They also become passionate and generous alumni of their American alma maters, and they become great supporters and friends of this country. There can be few better examples of America’s “soft power” than this.

We must combat the common misperception that international students pay considerably more to receive a college degree than their domestic peers do. At many universities, international students pay no more than standard out-of-state tuition prices. For example, at Indiana University, a student from California pays the same tuition as a student from China. Foreign learners are not, as some critics repeatedly suggest, “taking spots away” from deserving in-state students. At Indiana University, we have consistently enrolled around 75 percent in-state students, and many of our peer institutions across the Midwest educate comparable numbers of resident students.

There also is an important financial impact worth mentioning. International students continue to make major contributions to our local economies — during the 2016-17 academic year, the more than 1 million students studying at U.S. colleges and universities contributed nearly $37 billion and supported more than 450,000 jobs to the U.S. economy, making higher education one of the major positive contributors to the U.S. trade balance.

Finally, making disparaging comments about certain countries reinforces the negative attitudes and perceptions many international students have at the precise time we are trying to demonstrate how much we value them and the vital contributions they make to our campuses.

Congress and government could do more to better understand the valuable contributions international students make to our nation. These students play an important part in the role colleges and universities have in furthering our nation’s foundations of openness, civility and prosperity.