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International students are not enrolling in U.S. universities at the same rate they once did. (BigStock Photo)

The number of international students enrolling in American universities is declining for the first time in years, amid volatile shifts in U.S. immigration policy.

That’s according to the latest data from the federal government’s National Science Board. The number of international graduate students enrolled in U.S. science and engineering programs dropped 6 percent between 2016 and 2017 and 5 percent in non-science and engineering fields. The decline was driven by fewer international grad students seeking computer science and engineering degrees. International student enrollment had been increasing since 2012 until last year.

The total number of foreign-born students enrolled in undergraduate programs in the U.S. also fell 2 percent over the same time period. NSB notes that among undergrads, the decline isn’t happening in computer science or math majors, which actually increased. Engineering, social sciences, and non-STEM fields drove the overall drop for undergrads.

In the past academic year, international students across all levels, enrolled in U.S. universities, dropped from 840,160 to 808,640 after steadily increasing between 2012-2016. In science and engineering, the number dropped from 420,610 to 406,240. The drops may signal concerns from international students about their ability to remain in the U.S. after graduating.

(Table via National Science Board)

These declines track with major shifts in U.S. immigration policy under President Donald Trump. The administration is awarding fewer H-1B visas, which allow employers to sponsor highly skilled foreign-born workers in the U.S. for several years. The federal government attempted to overturn an Obama-era policy that allowed international entrepreneurs to build companies in the U.S. and a 12-month training period for foreign-born graduates to remain the U.S. is also in Trump’s crosshairs.

Doug Rand worked on immigration policy in the Obama White House before co-founding the Seattle immigration startup, Boundless. He is concerned about the latest data on international students becoming a trend.

“For years now, America has been the undisputed top destination for the best and brightest students from around the world,” he said in an email. “The recent erosion of this trend should concern us all, since international students tend to either bring American values back to their home countries or stay here and make outsized contributions to the U.S. economy.”

An analysis of the data by the National Foundation for American Policy found students from India enrolled in graduate-level computer science and engineering programs declined by 21 percent, accounting for “more than half of the decline in enrollment.”

Skilled workers from India receive the majority of H-1B visas.

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