Higher-education officials say a healthy population of international students is important because those students bring different perspectives to campus and expose homegrown students to cultures outside of their own. And because they typically pay full freight, universities also have a financial incentive to recruit and keep international students, both undergraduate and graduate.
Going into the 2018-2019 academic year, American universities received 4% fewer applications from prospective graduate students from overseas than they did the previous fall, making it the second consecutive year U.S. institutions had seen those numbers decline, according to a report from the Council of Graduate Schools.
That overall drop is being driven in large part by a decline in the number of applications from prospective grad students from India, one of the biggest sending countries for international grad students in the U.S., according to the report. But some North Texas universities are beginning to see that trend reverse itself.
At the University of Texas at Dallas, international applications dropped by 7% in 2017 and 17% in 2018, said UTD spokesman John Walls.
A few factors seemed to lead to the drop in applications from Indian students, Walls said. A series of monetary reform measures the country enacted beginning in 2016 led to financial instability there. That, combined with a strong dollar and weak rupee, made it more difficult for Indian students to come to the United States to study, Walls said.
The same decline also bore out at the University of Texas at Arlington, where applications from international graduate students declined by about a third during the same period, university records show. For the 2015-2016 academic year, the university saw 9,327 international graduate student applications. By last year, that number had fallen to just 6,168 applications. Although about 800 more international undergrads applied to UTA last year than did for the 2015-2016 academic year, the decline in graduate applications was large enough to drag the university's overall international applications down about 20% during that period.
Likewise, the University of North Texas has seen sharp declines in international grad student applications over the past two years, mainly among students from India and Saudi Arabia, said Pieter Vermeulen, the university's director of international recruitment. But over the last few months, UNT has seen an uptick in international grad student applications compared with last year, particularly among students from South Asia, he said. Vermeulen attributed some of that success to new course programs the university has rolled out and better outreach to two-year institutions in the Dallas-Fort Worth area with large populations of Nepali and Vietnamese students.
Although two consecutive years of nationwide declines don't necessarily spell a broader trend, higher-education researchers have been looking at the issue with concern. During a panel discussion with journalists in May at an Education Writers Association conference in Baltimore, Hironao Okahana, associate vice president for the Council of Graduate Schools, said there's been speculation among higher-education officials and researchers that the decline can be blamed in part on the so-called Trump Effect, whereby students overseas perceive the United States as being unsafe or unwelcoming in light of President Donald Trump's rhetoric on immigration.
Though American politics could be playing a role, Okahana said global student mobility is a complex issue, and no single factor can explain the trend. Often, economic issues in would-be international students' home countries affect their abilities to study abroad, he said. For example, American universities tend to see fewer applications from students from Iran and Saudi Arabia when the price of crude oil drops.
Another issue — and one that's beyond college recruiters' control — is changes in education policy in the countries that send graduate students to American universities, said Lauren Jacobsen-Bridges, director of international student and scholarship services at UNT.
When the university sees steep increases or declines from a specific country, it's usually the result of changes in education policy there, she said. For example, a few years ago, when the Brazilian government launched a scholarship program that made it easier for college students to study abroad, American universities, including UNT, saw an uptick in applications from Brazilian students. But when that program ended, those applications began to dry up, she said.
Another factor, she said, is that students overseas have more options on where to study than they did in years past. Australia and the United Kingdom have stepped up their recruitment efforts, she said, so well-qualified international students who want to study in an English-speaking country have more to choose from.
"The market's changed," Jacobsen-Bridges said. "The students have more options."