Travel Ban will result in a precipitous decline in international student enrollment from Muslim-majority countriesMuslim-majority countries


The potential impact of the recent ban on seven Muslim countries could be severe for international enrollments at many higher education institutions. It will dramatically reduce the number of international students not only from the above-mentioned countries but other Muslim-majority countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia were among top-15 places of origin for international students in 2015/16, according to IIE. The domino effect of this ban will result in a precipitous decline in international student enrollment from Muslim-majority countries.

Intensive English Programs and undergraduate programs are likely to suffer from enrollment decline in students from Saudi Arabia. As a key market for the US higher education. It was already witnessing the drop in enrollment due to the cut in the Saudi government’s scholarship program.

The ban will especially hurt graduate schools. This is due to the fact that the majority of the students from the seven banned countries were primarily enrolled in graduate level programs. For example, 70% of Iranian students were enrolled in doctoral-level programs (8,603/12,427) in 2016, according to SEVP data.
One of the leaked draft executive orders on Vox focuses on limiting legal immigration. It is entitled “Protecting American Jobs and Workers by Strengthening the Integrity of Foreign Worker Visa Programs.”

Its provisions on Optional Practical Training (OPT) states “(vii) propose for notice and comment a regulation that would reform practical training programs for foreign students to prevent the disadvantaging of U.S. students in the workforce, better protect U.S. and foreign workers affected by such programs, restore the integrity of student visa programs, ensure compliance, and improve monitoring of foreign students.” Vox reports that this order could “…reverse Obama’s extension of the duration of Optional Practical Training work visas.”

Optional Practical Training is a highly attractive program for international students. It helps them gain work experience, enrich their educational learning, and recover a part of their investment in education. Employers gain by bringing in global talent and exploring their skill sets before deciding about sponsoring employment visa.

The standard duration of OPT is one year. On April 8, 2008, DHS approved a 17-month OPT extension for a student graduating with a degree in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) field. A new rule effective May 10, 2016, further extended 17-months to 24-months for STEM degrees.

STEM OPT Extension is especially appealing to Indian students, who are concentrated in master’s programs in engineering and computer science. Data from SEVP indicates that in 2016, 83% of Indian students, 43% of Saudi Arabian students, 78% of Iranian students, and 40% of Chinese students were enrolled in STEM programs.


Here are some of the trends related to OPT during the eight years between 2007/08 and 2015/16. The academic year 2007/08 is selected to compare the enrollment trends prior to the approval of 17-month STEM Extension.

– In 2015/16, there were 90,732 more international students on OPT than in 2007/08
– In the eight years, the growth rate students on OPT was higher than growth rate for the total enrollment
– Two out of every third international student on OPT is from China or India (2015/16)
– One out of every sixth Chinese student in the US is on OPT (2015/16)
– One out of every fourth Indian student in the US is on OPT (2015/16)

With only 20,000 H1-B visas allocated for international students graduating with advanced degrees from the US, most international students have to return to their home countries eventually. OPT provides a critical experiential learning opportunity to complement the academic curriculum with practical skills.

OPT is one of the key differentiators in an increasingly competitive landscape of attracting international students from around the world. International students contributed US$ 32.8 billion to the US economy, according to NAFSA. Any policy that destabilizes the prospects of gaining work experience will inevitably hurt the American economy and higher education institutions.

If the executive order of limiting legal immigration and reversing OPT extension comes into force, it would result in many international student “opting-out” of the US as a preferred destination of choice. As international student recruitment moves to a phase of hyper-competition, American higher education institutions cannot afford to lose OPT, which is one of the attractive elements for international students aiming to study in the US.

(The article has been written by Dr Rahul Choudaha, co-founder of interEDGE – a US-based provider of support for international student inclusion. All the views expressed are personal)