With all the border-closing rhetoric that’s come from the White House over the past two years, it’s little surprise that the United States’ international student population growth is stagnating. Though America still hosts over a million foreign learners, first-time international undergraduates in the U.S. sank 6.6% in 2017 according to the IIE, a nonprofit that tracks international exchange in education.
Even the schools that prioritize international students have been hit by the trend. At Forbes’ 50 Top Schools for International Students of 2019 (full list below), the percentage of undergraduates who were international surged from 7.6% in 2009 to 11.3% in 2016. In 2017, it nudged to 11.5%, a mere 0.2% increase.
Yet despite its timing, the slowdown isn’t totally a Trump side effect.
“There’s definitely merit [to that argument], but this is not the only factor,” says Marcelo Barros, founder of international student career counseling firm International Advantage.
“The trend started years ago,” says Rajika Bhandari, a strategy advisor at the IIE. “The flow of new international students is beginning to soften.”
In 2016, students at American colleges paid an average annual net tuition of $8,202 at public schools and $21,189 at private ones, according to Student Loan Hero, a subsidiary of Lending Tree. That figure is often higher for international students, who don’t typically get generous aid packages.
Both sums are astronomical compared with those of most other countries; the U.S. has the second-highest tuition rates among nations with top-ranked schools (the U.K. tops the list). The average tuition in South Korea, which has sent fewer students to the U.S. every year since 2012, is less than $8,500 at private colleges and less than $5,000 at public ones. In China, America’s top supplier of international students, students can attend public college for between $3,000 and $10,000.
Some nations extend their affordable rates to non-citizens. German colleges have typically been tuition-free for international students, though the state of Baden-Württemberg started charging non-EU students $3,400 a year in 2017—still a bargain compared with American peers. Tuition for international students in France will similarly nudge up to $3,200 a year starting in the autumn of 2019.
In America, very few schools offer substantial discounts to international students. Of Forbes’ 650 Top Colleges, only five—Princeton (the No. 1 school for international students), Yale (No. 2), MIT (No. 3), Harvard (No. 4) and Amherst (No. 8) have both need-blind admissions and full-need financial aid policies for international students. Many colleges choose one or the other: Some meet accepted students’ full demonstrated need through financial aid but choose to accept fewer low-income international students, and some accept applicants regardless of financial background but don’t guarantee affordability.
To help pay, some foreign governments invest in scholarship programs that promote international study. Between 2011 and 2016, the Brazilian government funded yearlong study programs in STEM fields in the U.S. as part of its Scientific Mobility Program, which was part of a larger initiative to send 100,000 students abroad. In Saudi Arabia, the nearly 15-year-old King Abdullah Scholarship Program has spent billions of dollars annually to send students to U.S. colleges and universities.
But both programs have recently cut back. In 2016, Saudi Arabia heightened restrictions on the King Abdullah program, limiting the pool of American schools to which it would send students. In the 2016-17 school year, 14% fewer Saudi students came to study in the U.S. than in the previous year. The end of Brazil’s Scientific Mobility Program in 2016 was followed by a 45% drop in Brazilian students studying in the U.S. between the 2014-15 and 2016-17 school years, though numbers rebounded 12% in 2017.
Cutbacks from important feeder nations have big effects on international student population growth. Saudi Arabia and Brazil are the fourth- and tenth-highest sources of international students who come to the United States, respectively. There were almost 25,000 fewer students from the two nations combined in 2017-18 than there were in 2014-15.
External factors notwithstanding, most reputable schools are getting better at helping international students earn their diplomas. Between 2007 and 2017, the average graduation rate for international students increased almost six percentage points to 76.8% at the 293 schools considered for our list (all schools on the Top Colleges list with sufficient data whose undergraduate body is at least 5% international). That tops those schools’ average rate of 75% for all undergraduates.
Yet beyond basic metrics gathered by the federal government like graduation and enrollment trends, applicants looking to invest in an American education don’t have much data on which to base their decisions. Admissions experts in the space aren’t aware of any extensive databases that tackle topics like international student financial aid or alumni salary. And while some schools do keep these numbers, international applicants are sometimes so caught up in a college’s reputation that they eschew the more important questions about its ROI.
“International students should find out from universities their resources that they have available to help them achieve their job search goals,” says Barros, “and specifically obtain US employment placement data from the degree program they’re interested in, if they want to stay in the U.S.”
To put together our best schools for international student ranking, we used experts’ insights and our philosophy of “outputs over inputs.” We weight school quality at 60%, based on our Top Colleges rankings’ methodology. Drawing from the federal government’s IPEDS database, we weigh international student six-year graduation rate at 15% of our ranking. We reward schools with full-need aid or need-blind admission policies for international students, data we draw from schools’ websites, with 5% of our ranking each. Schools with high enrollment figures in international students’ most popular majors like engineering, business and math are rewarded up to 5% (per the IIE and the government’s College Scorecard database). The size of schools’ international student body (measured as a percentage of undergrads and calculated by IPEDS) accounts for 5% of our score. The remaining 5% of the score is based on the number of foreign-born workers in the college’s combined statistical area, from the U.S. Census.
Here is the full list of the 2019 Top Schools for International Students:
- Princeton University
- Yale University
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- Harvard University
- Columbia University
- California Institute of Technology
- Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art
- Amherst College
- Stanford University
- Babson College
- University of Pennsylvania
- Claremont McKenna College
- Georgetown University
- Brown University
- New York University
- Pomona College
- Cornell University
- Johns Hopkins University
- Lafayette College
- University of Chicago
- Dartmouth College
- University of California-Los Angeles
- University of Notre Dame
- Harvey Mudd College
- Barnard College
- Northwestern University
- Carnegie Mellon University
- Rice University
- Swarthmore College
- Tufts University
- Williams College
- Vassar College
- University of Southern California
- Vanderbilt University
- Bowdoin College
- Haverford College
- Pitzer College
- Washington University in St Louis
- Bates College
- Wesleyan University
- Wellesley College
- University of California-Berkeley
- Boston College
- Middlebury College
- University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
- Carleton College
- University of Maryland-College Park
- Grinnell College
- Georgia Institute of Technology-Main Campus
- Colgate University