Chinese students learn about U.S. universities at a 2015 education fair in Beijing.

Han jitao/Imaginechina via AP images

Drop in foreign applicants worries U.S. engineering schools

Amid the uncertainty over U.S. immigration policy, one fact is sending a chill through U.S. higher education: Some U.S. graduate programs in engineering, Science has learned, are seeing a sharp drop this year in the number of applications from international students.

University administrators worry that the declines, as much as 30% from 2016 levels in some programs, reflect heightened fears among foreign-born students that the United States is tightening its borders. A continued downturn, officials say, could threaten U.S. global leadership in science and engineering by shrinking the pool of talent available to carry out academic research. It could also hinder innovation in industry, given that most foreign-born engineering students take jobs with U.S. companies after graduation.

“It’s a precipitous drop,” says Philippe Fauchet, dean of engineering at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, of the 18% decline his department has seen in international graduate applications as last month’s deadlines passed. “Your first thought is, ‘Is it just us?’” adds Tim Anderson, engineering dean at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, where international applications for the electrical and computer engineering departments fell 30% this year. But after speaking with other deans, Anderson believes “it’s a pattern.” 

Given the timing, he and others suspect the cause is President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric during the campaign and his election, rather than the White House’s 27 January travel ban against seven Muslim-majority countries, which is now in legal limbo. And the deans wonder whether the impact will ripple through the next step in the admissions process. Acceptance letters are going out in the coming weeks, Fauchet notes, “and when we make the offers, who knows how many [students] will show up?”

A global talent pool

The 200 or so colleges and universities that do the bulk of federally funded research compete for a talent pool that is increasingly international. At Cornell University, for example, the number of applications from international students has increased by 30% annually for the past 5 years, says Graduate School Dean Barbara Knuth, whereas domestic applications have dropped by 9% a year. As a result, she says, international students now make up two-thirds of Cornell’s graduate applicants.

Schools of engineering and computer science programs are especially reliant on international students, in some cases drawing up to 90% of their applicants from abroad. And though students on temporary visas make up only 19% of all U.S. graduate students, they compose 55% of those studying engineering and computer science, according to 2015 enrollment data from the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) in Washington, D.C.

It will be several months before CGS compiles final statistics on international applications for 2017. And some universities declined to provide Science with their numbers, perhaps out of fear that it could damage their reputation and give competitors a recruiting edge. But many schools told Science that they are concerned.

At Vanderbilt, the overall number of international students applying for engineering master’s programs is down 28% from 2016, and the number seeking engineering Ph.D.s dropped 11%. Dartmouth College saw a 30% plunge in international applications for its venerable master’s program in engineering management (MEM), a professional degree. “That’s never happened before” in the program’s 25-year history, says engineering dean Joseph Helble.

We could be down almost 60 students. And I've been told that 30 students equals $1 million in tuition revenue.

Kevin Moore, Colorado School of Mines

At Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, one of the nation’s largest engineering schools, engineering applications overall are up 3%, says Director of Graduate Admissions Lee Gordon. But applications for the electrical and computer engineering department fell by 8.2%, and applications from Middle Eastern students interested in engineering are down by 12%.

At the University of California (UC), Irvine, overall international applications “are on par with last year,” says Frances Leslie, dean of the graduate school. International applications to its school of information and computer sciences are actually up by 9%, thanks to a new professional master’s program. But engineering has seen a drop of 10%.

Cornell’s Knuth says that international applications are up 2% across the university. She didn’t provide a breakdown for engineering but noted that applications from Iran and Pakistan were down 10% and 23%, respectively.

Financial impact

Such declines could have a major impact on a university’s bottom line, although calculating its magnitude is not straightforward. The federal government heavily subsidizes graduate education in the sciences and engineering, so most doctoral students don’t have to worry about tuition bills. But universities generate considerable revenue from professional master’s degree programs, a subset of all master’s training. And in those programs, international students at public universities pay tuition rates that are much higher than for in-state students.

Kevin Moore, engineering dean at the Colorado School of Mines (CSM) in Golden, explains how things could play out on his campus. This year, CSM’s international applications are down 19%, he says. And almost 9% of the 698 foreign applicants hail from the seven countries fingered in Trump’s travel ban, reflecting the school’s strong history of attracting students from oil-rich nations. If some form of the ban is upheld, those students won’t be able to enroll. And if the proportion of applicants who wind up on campus this fall holds steady, “we could be down almost 60 students,” Moore says. “And I’ve been told that 30 students equals $1 million in tuition revenue.”

We’ll be trying to reassure folks that the United States is still a free country, and that we’d love to have them attend our institution.

Tim Anderson, University of Massachussetts

University officials do have some options, as demand far exceeds supply at top graduate programs. Even with this year’s sharp decline, for example, Dartmouth’s Helble has almost six applicants for each one of the MEM program’s 50 slots. Such ratios give administrators the option of admitting students who previously might not have made the cut, including more domestic students.

But educators are loath to move the bar if it would lower the quality of the talent pool. Instead, some deans plan to step up the wooing of top applicants. “We’re going to do more touches,” says Anderson, such as having an adviser or a current student contact a foreign applicant who has been accepted. “We’ll be trying to reassure folks that the United States is still a free country,” he says, “and that we’d love to have them attend our institution.”

At the same time, they don’t want to make promises they can’t keep. “Our legal counsel has told us to continue the admissions process as normal and that it’s illegal to discriminate by nationality,” says UC Irvine’s Leslie, who notes that the 400 Iranian students are part of this year’s pool of nearly 15,000 graduate applications. “But we have no control over what happens in Washington. And we have warned our faculty to expect a lower yield.” (The yield is the number of accepted students who end up enrolling.)

A few months away from earning his Ph.D. in electrical engineering at Vanderbilt, Stanley Lo knows what it is like to be an international student weighing an offer from a U.S. institution. Lo says he didn’t worry about negative public attitudes toward immigrants when he came in 2011 from Hong Kong, China, to work with Fauchet, then at the University of Rochester in New York. “It was a big step, but I thought the United States was the best place for me to reach my potential,” Lo says.

He believes that’s still the case, but notes the political culture has changed. “I would tell them to come here if they want to,” Lo says. “There are so many students from around the world, and there are still many opportunities to make the world a better place through innovation. I think tech companies are still welcoming to immigrants. But the problem is the larger U.S. policy.”