Oh Canada!: The Rise of International Students Heading to Canadian Universities

Historically, the United States has been the #1 destination for students seeking to attend undergraduate and graduate programs outside of their home country. The US has been considered a “beacon of hope”, with generations looking towards “the American dream” as their key to success in getting out of poverty and gaining social and economic status. However, since the 2016 presidential election, the number of international students seeking higher education in the United States has fallen by about 7% nationally. The Open Doors report published by the US State Department notes that in the 2017-2018 academic year, 1,094,792 international students studied in the US, with the largest cohorts going to California, New York and Texas.

Due to factors such as an increase in costs of attendance, the political climate under President Trump, and the fact that international students gain no clear path to citizenship in the United States, international students begun seeking alternative countries to go to school – and therefore, give their money. In fact, ICEF, an organization that tracks international education trends, mentions that “Admissions directors at nearly six in ten US institutions say they are concerned about maintaining their college or university’s current international student numbers”. Traditionally, international students seek English-speaking countries such as the US, Canada, the UK, and Australia, knowing that English fluency nearly guarantees them social and economic success. International students are weary of Brexit and how it will impact institutions in the UK, while also feeling hesitant about attending school in the US, and therefore have turned to Canada as their ideal location of study.

Although Canadian universities’ tuition continue to rise and “on average, international students in Canada can expect to pay four times more tuition than domestic students”, international students view these costs as more practical and realistic than those of the US. Moreover, the anti-immigrant rhetoric spewed by the Trump administration has not only scared away international students and families from all over the world, but especially from those coming from Latin America and the Middle East. During the Presidential election, Trump repeatedly referred to Mexicans as “Drug dealers, criminals and rapists,” while the so-called “Muslim ban” made it loud and clear to Middle Easterners (and others) that the United States did not welcome them. ICEF also reported that “74% of [US] admissions directors agree — including 52% who strongly agree — that the policies and rhetoric of the Trump administration have made it more difficult to recruit international students.” The same report states that the first significant decrease of international students coming to the US occurred between 2016-2017 – which is no coincidence.

Finally, the US international student visa (most commonly F1) permits a student to reside in the US for the time-length of their academic program (typically 4 years), and if a student wishes to “Extend Their Stay”, they can apply for Optional Practical Training (OPT). If accepted, a student may stay in the US for an additional 12-36 months in order to gain relevant work experience that must be related to their “major area of study” – meaning a student who received a Bachelor of Arts in Latin American Studies will not be granted OPT to work at Goldman Sachs. After the OPT, the student is given no clear pathway to citizenship. If they gain full-time employment post-OPT, their employer will need to sponsor their H1B visa (known as the highly skilled worker visa), which does not guarantee a pathway even to permanent residency. An employee at Goldman Sachs could work there for 30 years without any commitment or action to help them get a green card.

The rising costs of tuition, increase in anti-immigrant public political speech, and lack of pathway to citizenship has opened a gaping hole for other countries and universities to capitalize upon. Canada “has chosen to ramp up its offer to international students, quietly and quickly. Between 2015 and 2017 alone, the number of international students in Canada increased by over 40 per cent. In 2017, international students contributed almost $19 billion to Canada’s economy through tuition, accommodation and discretionary spending – positioning education as the fourth largest export sector in the Canadian economy. Recently the country reached its 2022 goal of hosting 450,000 foreign students early, by enrolling more than 494,000 students.” While Trump and his administration publicly and privately (in May 2019, they increased the SEVIS cost to apply for an F1 visa added an additional $150 in fees) made it more difficult/scary for international students to pursue higher education and citizenship in the US, Canada’s policy states that “students can work part-time while studying; they automatically qualify for a work permit of up to three years upon graduating; and they are given preferred status if they apply to become permanent residents.” According to a study done by the Canadian Bureau for International Education in 2018, “the overwhelming majority of students (93%) say they are satisfied with their educational experience”. The number of international students pursuing higher education degrees in Canada in 2018 is now four times as many as in 2000.


Who's coming to Canada, and where are they coming from?

The ability to stay in Canada (for longer than you can in the US) with a pathway to citizenship is one of the most defining reasons for this change – and it has a significant positive impact on Canada.  . One international student pursuing her MBA at the University of Toronto notes, “For us it’s about building our future lives, not just having international education. I asked myself, where do I want to live? Where can I live? Not some place where one day I wake up and my work or study permit is not approved. I came for this life, not just for this [school] building.” In fact, “Forty percent of all the economic-class immigrants accepted by the Canadian federal government for landing are now international students who have graduated from Canadian colleges and want to stay in the country.” In the 2017-2018 academic year, international students contributed $39 billion to the US economy and supported/created 455,622 jobs. A mere 7% decrease in international students could result in a $2,730,000,000 loss to the US economy alone.

Higher education enrollment managers from all across the US know the answers as to why and how they are losing international students to Canada and are trying to be proactive in changing this. Gil Latz, Associate Vice Chancellor for International Affairs at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis notes that US higher education needs to “make the case for continuing to be a destination for international students … in response to a narrative in the country that is more anti-global engagement, more anti-immigrant.” Since the 2016 election (and notable drops in the 2017-2018 year),  many Universities are taking action to combat the fears and hesitations of international students and families, as “Tufts set up a travel hotline for international students and scholars. The University of New Hampshire sent representatives to China and India to encourage students who had been admitted to actually enroll. Eastern Michigan University put up banners on their lightpoles featuring photos of international students. Temple hosted a week of activities, including a speed-dating style cultural exchange.” The United States must take swift action (politically, socially, economically, globally, locally, etc) to support, recruit and yield international students in order to stop this economic-and-brain-drain from the past 3 years. Only time (aka the US Presidential election of 2020) will tell if Canada can and will overtake the United States as the #1 most-desired location for international students.



Nora Colman