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Jun 12, 2018 at 12:00am ET By Joanna Hughes

The number of international students enrolled at higher education institutions fell by roughly four percent between 2016 and 2017, according to a National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP) policy brief based on analysis of Homeland Security data. How do the numbers break down, and to what can this phenomenon be attributed? Here’s a closer look at the policy brief, along with why the information it contains is cause for concern.

Indian Students Lead the Exodus

More than half of the decline in numbers is attributed to a drop in Indian graduate students in the fields of computer science and engineering. In total, the number of Indian international students enrolled in these programs fell by 18,590 -- or 21 percent. Also showing a major decline at the graduate level? Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, major drops in undergraduate students were seen in South Korea, Japan, Turkey, Brazil and Indonesia.

Science and engineering areas were overall hit hard: The number of international graduate students in these areas fell by 14,730 over the same period of time.

Estimating the Impact

US universities rely heavily on international student dollars, but the perception that international student crowd out American is a misguided one: In fact, international students at the graduate level actually facilitate domestic enrollments. Explains economist Kevin Shih. “Foreign student tuition revenue is used to subsidize the cost of enrolling additional domestic students.”

Already there have been budget cuts. “Just as many universities believed that the financial wreckage left by the 2008 recession was behind them, campuses across the country have been forced to make new rounds of cuts, this time brought on, in large part, by a loss of international students,”  said the New York Times earlier this year.

And then there’s the hit to the workforce, which relies heavily on international talent. According to a 2016 NFAP report, “Nearly one-quarter (20) of the 87 billion dollar US startup companies -- and almost half of the companies with an immigrant founder -- had a founder who came to America as an international student.”

The takeaway, according to the policy brief? “If the trend continues, it could have a profound negative impact on U.S. students and U.S. universities, as well as American companies and the U.S. economy.”

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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