The number of new foreign students in U.S. colleges is falling — and that’s really bad news

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The number of new foreign students from Latin America enrolling in U.S. colleges is falling. And it is falling faster than that of students from many other parts of the world. This does not bode well at all for long-term hemispheric relations:

According to “Open Doors,” a just-released joint report from the U.S. Institute of International Education and the State Department, the number of new enrollments from Latin America fell by 3.7 percent this year. Some of the biggest drops were from Argentina (minus 10 percent), Brazil (minus 9.3 percent), Mexico (minus 5.3 percent) and Uruguay (minus 25 percent).

Comparatively, the number of foreign students from China and India — by far the countries with the largest numbers of foreign students in the United States — grew slightly, by 1.3 percent and 0.5 percent, respectively, this year.

Overall, there has been a drop in the number of new foreign student enrollments over the past two years. That’s bad news for the United States — economically, politically and academically.

From a dollar-and-cents view of potential loss, the estimated 1.1 million foreign students in U.S. colleges contribute $42.4 billion a year to the economy through tuition, room and board and other expenses, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Many foreign students pay full tuition, which allows U.S. universities to use part of that money to subsidize American students.

The long-term political damage may be even greater. Foreign students often return to their countries and become top political, business or academic leaders. They also help their fellow American students better understand the world and to be functional in a global economy.

Is it coincidental that the number of new foreign students fell since President Trump took office? And that one of the biggest regional drops was from Latin America? Probably not.

Words matter. If you are a Mexican student and hear the U.S. president constantly bashing Mexican immigrants, painting most of them as criminals and rapists, you might decide not to study in the United States. If you are a student from El Salvador and hear Trump calling your birthplace a “shithole country,” you may prefer to study in Canada, Europe or China.

Trump’s tirades against immigrants — and the pictures of families separated at the border or of children held in cages — likely are creating a feeling among many Latin Americans that they are no longer welcome in the United States. Foreign tourism to the United States fell in 2017, despite a significant rise in tourism worldwide, according to U.S. Travel Association and the World Tourism Council.

Some authorities tell me that other factors come into play in the drop in new Latin American enrollments in U.S. colleges, such as the economic crisis in Brazil.

“The latest “Open Doors” data should be cause of concern,” says Julio Frenk, president of the University of Miami. “While there are local country factors involved, it’s difficult to imagine that the current (anti-immigration) rhetoric doesn’t have anything to do with the decline in new enrollments from Latin America.”

Frenk said that many Latin American students may be looking into pursuing their college education in other English-speaking countries, such as Canada and Great Britain.

After Trump’s election, there was a huge jump in searches at Canadian universities’ websites, part of which may have come from foreign students. And a growing number of European universities are giving courses in English, hoping to attract some of the foreign students who don’t want to come to the United States.

Granted, American universities are still ranked as the world’s best. And the United States continues to be the world’s leading destination for foreign students.

Yet Trump is hurting America’s academic preeminence by creating a fake immigration crisis, and it’s scaring away foreign students and tourists. In truth, the number of illegal immigrants is way down from what it was 10 years ago, making Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric not only unethical, but economically damaging, too.

Don’t miss the “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show Sundays at 8 pm on CNN en Español.


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