US public has mixed views on foreign student recruitment

Americans are more likely than not to say students from other countries have a positive impact on United States higher education and society, but offer mixed views about whether they would like universities to step up efforts to reverse recent enrolment declines, a study suggests.

The study, which is based on three iterations of surveys of registered voters conducted between March 2017 and February 2021, paints what it calls a “complex, evolving and nuanced public view” of how US voters perceived international students during perhaps the most volatile and politicised period of higher education policy-making since the September 2001 terrorist attacks.

It was sponsored by the American Council on Education (ACE), the primary representative in Washington for university leaders.

Overall, US international enrolments declined 1.8% in 2019, according to the Institute of International Education (IIE), which has tracked student mobility trends for decades.

IIE data also show that international students contributed an estimated US$44 billion to the US economy that year. But the US’s global share has diminished in recent years as more countries are competing in the recruitment of students from outside their borders.

Last year, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, international student enrolments dropped 16% overall and 43% among new international students. Even before that, the Trump administration had introduced more restrictive visa policies that worried ACE members.

Meanwhile, the US Senate is considering similar restrictions in its Safeguarding American Innovation Act, which calls for new limits on visiting foreign scientists and stricter disclosure of foreign gifts to US universities. ACE argues the measures are “unnecessary and could be used to undermine valuable and important scientific activities”.