How International Students Contribute to our Campuses, Communities, and Country

The exchange of people and ideas is necessary to ensure we have the expertise needed to fight the next global threat or pandemic, and international students are vital contributors to our knowledge and innovation agenda. Our graduate science programs, in particular, are dependent on the presence of international students and scholars. Both of the vaccines first approved for use in the United States were developed with internationally collaborative science and with the help of foreign students and immigrants. And we can thank foreign students for our ability to remain connected, even as COVID-19 has required us to stay physically distanced. The video conferencing technology that has allowed us to connect virtually was made possible through the scientific breakthrough led by a former foreign student who studied in the United States decades ago.

Demographic shifts and future labor market needs will require the U.S. to not only adequately educate and train its youth, but to also attract critical talent from overseas. Like many Western countries, the U.S. faces a declining population in the future. At the same time, countries in South Asia and Africa will soon be home to the world’s largest youth population which will undoubtedly be looking for educational opportunities overseas. Expanding efforts to attract international students will serve multiple purposes — meeting global demand for high quality education, addressing the need for increased education pathways for refugee students, and filling critical human resource and labor market needs in the U.S. 

International students also help us build relationships with other countries. U.S. national security and foreign policy leaders have often referred to them as our greatest foreign policy asset. Our ability to attract top international students in the past has meant that the U.S. educates more world leaders than any other country; in 2020, 62 leaders from 58 countries studied in the U.S. earlier in their careers.

In addition to the immeasurable foreign policy and academic benefits of welcoming international students to our institutions, these students also make significant economic benefits. International students create jobs and help us grow our economy. For every 8 international students we welcome, 3 US jobs are created or supported, according to NAFSA’s latest data. These students and their dependents contributed $28.4 billion to the U.S. economy and supported 306,308 jobs, helping many of our institutions and communities to make up for lower state budgets for higher education and to offer lower tuition rates to domestic students.

But for the second year in a row, the United States saw a drop in the number of new international student enrollments and a corresponding loss in jobs and revenue. The combined two-year decline totaled $12.1 billion. Of the $10.3 billion drop in 2020-21, NAFSA estimates $9.4 billion (or 91%) was solely attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic.For a greater understanding of how further declines in enrollment will affect our communities, view your state and district’s data, go to

The problem is that we can no longer assume that students will always come here. We are at a pivotal moment in the global competition for international students that may very well determine what happens for decades to come.

According to a report released in January 2021 by the Migration Policy Institute, although the United States has long been the top receiving country for international students, who historically have been drawn by the high quality of U.S. higher education, its value on the international labor market, and access to job opportunities in the United States after graduation, we have now seen marked a decrease of almost 20,000 international students from the year before.

To ensure we have the science needed to fight the next global threat, strengthen our economy, and rebuild our relationships with other countries, we must out-compete other nations to welcome and retain the best and brightest from all around the world.


View our recommendations on how the Biden administration can bolster the United States’ position as the leading destination for international students and scholars seeking higher education opportunities and to ensure that we welcome a diversity of students from throughout the world.