Panel Paper: Global Perceptions of the United States and International Student Enrollments

Friday, November 8, 2019
Plaza Building: Concourse Level, Plaza Court 3 (Sheraton Denver Downtown)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Catalina Amuedo-Dorantes, San Diego State University, Mary Lopez, Occidental College and Ashley Muchow, University of Illinois, Chicago

In the fiscal year ending in September 2017, the U.S. State Department issued 17 percent fewer student visas than the year earlier—nearly 40 percent below the 2015 peak. The drop-off was particularly dramatic among students from India, the second-biggest feeder of foreign students at U.S. colleges (28 percent reduction), followed by Chinese students, who constitute the largest group of international students in the U.S. (24 percent reduction). Factors that may have contributed to the decline in visa issuances include the rising costs of a U.S. degree, greater competition from other international degree programs and institutions closer to home, changes in visa policies, and funding restrictions to study in the U.S.

Our interest is on, yet, another factor—international perceptions about the U.S. A recent survey administered by the Institute of International Education revealed that 52 percent of higher education institutions reported that prospective international students cited the current American social and political climate as a deterrent to studying in the U.S. Using 2004 through 2017 data on international students enrolled in U.S. institutions from the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, along with country-specific Google Trends (GT) search data capturing perceptions of the U.S. abroad, we examine how such perceptions impact international student enrollments. We perform a number of identification and robustness checks. For example, using the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Survey, we assess the correlation between our GT index and international perceptions about the U.S., Americans, and the U.S. President. We also conduct placebo checks to ensure that the GT index is not capturing a generalized trend, and address the potential endogeneity of the GT index with regard to international enrollments.

Empirically assessing whether awareness of U.S. policy and the political climate are attracting or deterring international students is important for a number of reasons. International students provide billions of dollars to the U.S. economy each year. They have been shown to be a key source of revenue for U.S. public universities, which relied on the growing pool of international students during much of the 1990s and 2000s to offset declining state appropriations. Furthermore, international students constitute an important source of talent and have contributed positively to U.S. innovation, the U.S. labor market, and the diversity of U.S. universities and colleges. Findings from this research will provide policymakers, researchers, and educational institutions with greater insight into the pull factors affecting this important contribution to the U.S. education system.