Carmen Neghina

International students’ changing perceptions of the U.S.


Last year, following the U.S. presidential election, Studyportals conducted a survey of over 1,300 international and American students, in attempt to understand how the election outcome has shaped student perception, and whether it affected their interest in studying in the U.S. Because that survey was conducted at the end of 2016, it was clear that students were yet unable to make any judgments about studying in the U.S., or whether the election of President Donald Trump would compromise their choice of study options.

In the year since, with policy changes, executive orders, and changing attitudes towards Trump’s presidency, we’ve noticed that students have a clearer picture about what it would mean to study abroad in the U.S. Given travel bans, restrictions on employment visas, stricter immigration policies, and the repeal of DACA, international students are now better equipped to assess the prospect of studying in the U.S. under the Trump administration.

Recently, we received surveys from over 1,815 students from 154 different countries –  75% of whom were in the process of searching for an international study – we discovered some notable changes in the students’ interests in going to the U.S.

Attitude changes towards the U.S. during the first year of Trump presidency

Discerning a difference between previous years and this year under the Trump dispensation, we were interested in understanding whether there was a change in attitude among students, and what the content of that change actually is.

Of the students surveyed, a 46% noted that they have become less interested in studying in the U.S. Yet, when asked specifically about the Travel Ban –  in which Trump issued an executive order effectively banning immigrants from Iran, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen – 28% of students noted that the travel ban made them unsure whether to study in the U.S. or not, citing among the factors feeling that the U.S. is becoming less welcoming to international students (48%). 36% of students are still interested in studying in the U.S. despite the travel ban though.


The Travel Ban appeared to be one of the defining pain points for students in reaction to the Trump presidency. Among the students whose attitudes changed in reaction to the travel ban, 10% are, in fact, from the 6 banned countries; with another 11% fearing that their country might be next, reported by students from India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Malaysia or Egypt. However, a staggering 48% percent of these respondents simply felt that the U.S. is either less welcoming to international students, or that they now feel less safe in the U.S. (25%). For many of these respondents, it seems quite clear that the travel ban symbolises a hostility towards immigration more generally, making international students feel less inclined to pursue their education there.


Considering the U.S. as an education option

For international students, there are different considerations and motivations they have for selecting a study abroad destination. Whether it’s career prospects, educational prestige, social environment, or cost, students consider a lot of factors before deciding on the location to which they plan to go.

For most student (65%)s, the cost of education is one of the most important factors in choosing a study programme, followed by academic quality (mentioned by 58% of students), the study subject itself (53%) or being able to live in an English-speaking country (44%), but also safety of their study destination (43%).


Previously, when international students went to the U.S. to pursue a degree, they were able to find employment as foreign students and were also able to apply for the employment visa following their degree. This was seen as a strong benefit not only to international students but also allowed companies worldwide to reach talented employees from all over the world. And, among our survey respondents, a strong majority marked working during their studies, and working after their studies, as the most important decision-making factors when selecting an education destination.

For students considering a degree abroad, 62% mentioned that being able to work in the country following the degree is very important, but 39% also mentioned that having access to the same internship opportunities as local students is very important, but also having the possibility of living in the country after completing their studies (34%).  For the students who would like to stay and work after their studies, the preference is for an indefinite opportunity mentioned by 47% of students.

However, when students were asked whether the proposed limits on work opportunities, 61% of those who were aware of these proposed limits stated that they are less interested in studying in the U.S. Similarly, when asked about the employment visa, among the students who were aware of these imposed constraints, 62% said they are now less interested in studying in the U.S.


Conclusions drawn

While a sizable portion of the survey respondents noted that the status of the U.S. as an appealing study destination has not changed, its position has shifted considerably in reaction to the Trump presidency, and the policies the current administration has put forth. This survey is based on a limited sample of prospective international students, so the reality might not be as dire as painted.

Taken in its entirety, though, there are some inferences that can be drawn from the survey with respect to students’ interest in studying in the U.S.

  1. As the U.S. position as a highly sought-after study abroad destination is becoming less certain and has become less attractive due to recent policy proposals (according to 48% of respondents), it still manages to appeal to plenty of international students.
  2. The U.S. still has the largest number of universities with English-taught degrees, and usually, the supply of education opportunities and the demand for it are tightly connected. That means that while students might become more concerned about some ongoing issues, they still have more choices in the U.S. than elsewhere in the world.

Placing this alongside our survey from last year, we’re seeing a trend that is consistent with the previous findings: namely, as students were afraid that policy proposals and anti-immigration sentiments were growing in the U.S., they began to reconsider the appeal of going to the U.S. In last year’s survey, 57% of users indicated that the U.S. appears to be less welcoming to international students. For this new survey, that perception has not appeared to waver, indicating that the predictions made by students last year were confirmed throughout Donald Trump’s tenure. In the meanwhile, we can only wait for the international enrolment numbers to be confirmed to know if the trend is also directly impacting student enrolments at U.S. universities or not, however, the first signs are not positive, with numbers already decreasing for international applications earlier this year.

Mentions in the news

How the US can stem decline in international students – University World News

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