For the second year in a row, the number of international student applications and enrollment in U.S. institutions has declined. Based on a survey of 240 institutions who contributed data for both 2017 and 2018, the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) reports that the overall number of graduate applications from prospective international students fell by 4%. Between 2016 and 2017, the number of applicants had fallen by 3%. While the number of doctoral applications increased by 1% between 2017 and 2018, the overall decline was driven by a 6% decline in master’s applications.
In a February 7th press release, CGS President Suzanne Ortega noted that “This is the first time we’ve seen declines across two consecutive years, and while we think it’s too soon to consider this a trend, it is troubling.” While the survey report does not reach any conclusions as to the reason for the decline, the CGS President pointed to “issues, including changes in immigration and visa policy, with growing concern over the possible negative impact to the U.S.’s image as a welcoming destination for international students and scholars.”
Many commentators attribute the decline to increasingly burdensome U.S. immigration policies. One such change rescinded a 2013 policy which required USCIS adjudicators to request additional information from applicants before denying applications. The new policy gives USCIS adjudicators “full discretion to deny applications, petitions, or requests” without seeking additional information.
Another policy change is particularly worrisome for F-1 student visa holders, the most popular student visa. One of the statutory bars to future admissions into the U.S. is known as the “unlawful presence” bar. Any alien who accrues more than 180 days, but less than a year of unlawful presence is prevented from re-entering the U.S. for three years. Those who accrue a year or more of unlawful presence are barred from re-entry for ten years. Previously, F visa holders started accruing unlawful presence on the day after USCIS formally found a nonimmigrant status violation while adjudicating a request for another immigration benefit or on the day after an immigration judge ordered the applicant excluded, deported, or removed. Under the new policy, F visa holders now start accruing unlawful presence the day after they no longer pursue a course of study, or the day after they engage in an “unauthorized activity.” This means that international students could start accruing unlawful presence without ever having been formally notified that they are doing so. These policy changes may be creating a chilling effect on international students’ decision to come to the U.S. for education.