Explained: Why US cannot say no to international students

How important are international students to US universities? Extremely important, say experts, be it by way of diversity, the quality of talent or the revenue they bring to institute coffers.

On Wednesday, Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology sued the Trump administration to protect student visas, and vowed to pursue the case vigorously, according to Lawrence Bacow, president, Harvard. Even as the battle lines are being drawn between the universities and the US immigration authorities, ET brings to you a snapshot of what international students bring to the table – and why US universities can’t run the risk of losing them.

How the numbers stack up:

Total number of international students in the US (2018-19) –
International students make up around
5.5% of the total US higher education population.

(Source: Open Doors 2019, by the Institute of International Education (IIE) and the US Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs)

Revenue reckoner:

International students contributed
$44.7 billion to the US economy in 2018, according to data from the Department of Commerce

Popular programmes:

51.6% of international students in the US pursued
STEM fields in 2018/19
Number of foreign students in Math and Computer Science programmes grew 9.4%, surpassing Business and Management to become the second-largest field of study.

(Source: Open Doors 2019)

Top 5 sources of international students in the US

(Across undergraduate, graduate, non-degree, and optional practical training (OPT) programmes in academic year 2018-19)

Of the 1 million-plus international students in the US, China and India accounted for over 52%

Source country

No of students (2018-19)





South Korea


Saudi Arabia




Emerging market countries showed some of the strongest growth year over year in 2018-19

  • Bangladesh (+10%)
  • Brazil (+9.8%)
  • Nigeria (+5.8%)
  • Pakistan (+5.6%)

Source: Open Doors 2019

How foreign students help:

International students are big business for US universities. On an average, international students pay around 2-3 times the regular tuition at public universities. At private universities, tuition fees are the same except for an ‘international student fee’

Diversity enriches learning environment in classrooms Contribute to research, particularly in science and engineering

Fees charged by top US colleges:

Private: Top private universities like Harvard and Stanford charge tuition fee of over $50,000 for an academic year

Combined fee for private universities including tuition, room, boarding and others is upwards of $70,000 for an academic year

Public: For international students, the tuition fee is between $30,000 and $50,000 per academic year

Combined fee for public universities including room, boarding, tuition and other fee for international students averages $40,000-60,000

“Foreign students are the key source of revenue for foreign universities; they cannot depend on alumni endowments alone,” Jatin Bhandari, CEO at MBA admission consulting firm PythaGurus.

“In case, international students pull out of the US ecosystem, then more than 50% of the US colleges will not be able to sustain themselves financially,” Adarsh Khandelwal, cofounder of Collegify

Why the new guidelines, if implemented, will hurt US universities

Hostile/restrictive policy may dissuade prospective international students from applying to the US

US universities will lose out on talent – particularly in tech

Canada, the UK, Australia, Germany, etc. may gain in the bargain

Financial setback for institutes dependent on international enrolments

New international student enrolment has already been on the decline

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