The story line goes something like this: Dislike and/or fear of President Donald Trump, tougher visa rules and border enforcement, and reports of hostility to foreigners are discouraging people with brains and money from coming to the U.S.
A new data point in support of this narrative was delivered Tuesday by the Institute of International Education: The number of new international students enrolling at U.S. colleges and universities fell in the 2017-2018 academic year to 271,738, from 290,836 the year before (a 6.6 percent decline). This was the second decline in a row after more than a decade of annual gains, and media accounts intimated that what one could call the “Trump effect” was largely to blame. From the Washington Post:
“While other countries work hard to attract international students, we are managing to send a message that talented foreigners are not welcome here, just when we most need them,” Ángel Cabrera, president of George Mason [University], said in a statement responding to the report.
The fact that the number of new students also fell in 2016-2017, though, makes this a little hard to pin entirely on a president elected in November 2016, after most of those students would presumably have already enrolled. The Saudi government’s 2016 decision (forced on it by falling oil revenue) to cut back on scholarships for overseas study has clearly been a big factor, with the number of Saudi students in the U.S. dropping from 61,287 in 2015-2016 to 44,432 in the past academic year. Also, the overall number of international students in the U.S. still rose a little (1.5 percent) in 2017-2018 as returning students made up for the decline in new arrivals.
Then again, Canada’s international-student total rose 20.5 percent from 2016 to 2017 (Canada reports by calendar year instead of academic year), despite a similar drop in Saudi enrollment. And while Canada’s international-student gains have generally outpaced those of the U.S. over the past decade, the divergence in the last two years really is striking.
It’s still a little mysterious that the divergence seems to have begun before Trump was elected, but this data certainly doesn’t contradict the narrative that the man and his policies are scaring people away, and that the U.S. is losing out on both income and talent as a result.
This inspired me, though, to check on another, more timely source of data on foreigners coming to the U.S. that I’ve consulted before: the monthly visitor arrivals tracked by the National Travel and Tourism Office. Numbers on overseas visitors are available through May 2018; those for visitors from Canada and Mexico (which are provided by those countries’ governments) are available though August and July, respectively. And they show that … people are visiting us again!
After a modest dip that began in early 2016, the number of visitors to the U.S. began rising in 2017 and is now once again setting all-time records — although the totals are still well below what the pre-2015 trendline would have predicted. Pleasure travelers (that is, anybody not here primarily on business) have driven most of the increase, and the biggest gains so far this year have been among visitors from Mexico, Canada and Brazil. Visits from Brazil and Canada had fallen off starting in the spring of 2016; from Mexico, the decline really got going at the beginning of 2017. This may be because all three nations’ currencies lost a lot of value against the U.S. dollar in 2015; for the Mexican peso, the decline continued through 2016. Since then, they’ve all stabilized (although the behavior of Mexico’s president-elect has hammered the peso in recent weeks).
In other words, when visiting the U.S. got a lot more expensive for them, Canadians, Brazilians and Mexicans stayed home or went elsewhere. When the cost fell, or at least stopped rising, they came again.
Meanwhile, the cost of college in the U.S. went up relative to the cost in Canada as the value of a Canadian dollar fell from U.S. $1.06 in 2011 to 69 cents in early 2016, and it hasn’t gotten much cheaper since. The U.S. dollar also rose over that stretch against the currencies of its other two main competitors for international students, Australia and the U.K.
What does this all add up to? I have no sweeping conclusions, but three thoughts:
- There probably is a Trump effect discouraging some students and tourists from coming to the U.S., and that’s a shame.
- There’s also a currency effect, and it can at times be hard to disentangle the two.
- The U.S. continues to attract lots of students and tourists, which is reassuring.
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.
Photo Credit: President Trump. Visitor numbers to the U.S. have started to rise again. Bloomberg