"Amid 'Trump Effect' fear, 40% of colleges see dip in foreign applicants"—but …


Students rally against President-elect Donald Trump in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 15, 2016. (Pete Marovich/Bloomberg)

A New York Times headline from March 16 reads, "Amid 'Trump Effect' fear, 40% of colleges see dip in foreign applicants." And the story's opening paragraphs echo this; the first three mention a specific incident aimed to illustrate this, and then the article goes on to say:

Like many universities across the country, the Oregon university[Portland State] is getting fewer international applications.

Nearly 40 percent of colleges are reporting overall declines in applications from international students, according to a survey of 250 college and universities, released this week by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. The biggest decline is in applications from the Middle East.

Many officials cited worries among prospective students about Trump administration immigration policies. "International student recruitment professionals report a great deal of concern from students all over the globe," the study said.

Only in the third sentence of the 10th paragraph does the story note that, "many schools, including New York University, the University of Southern California and Northeastern University, reported that their international numbers are up." How many? The article doesn't say.

But the survey that the article cites does say, in its first "key finding," on its first page:

39% of responding institutions reported a decline in international applications, 35% reported an increase, and 26% reported no change in applicant numbers.

Yes, that's right: The headline could equally well have read, "Despite 'Trump Effect' fear, 35% of colleges see rise in foreign applicants." Indeed, in a survey of 250 institutions, there is no meaningful difference between 39% and 35%—the more accurate headline would have been, "About as many colleges see rise in foreign applicants as see decline."

To be sure, it's possible that the Trump administration's policies have led the number of international applications to level out, after what appears to be 10 years of increases in international students studying in U.S. universities. (The article signals that briefly, but only in the second sentence of the 9th paragraph.) Or maybe not—the survey that the New York Times article cited didn't report on the change in the total number of applicants, only the number of universities that report a net increase and the number that report a net decrease. As the article suggests, changes in application numbers don't necessarily change the total student numbers (though if a university wants to enroll the same number of students from fewer applicants, it may have to dip lower in the application pool). In any event, that would be an interesting inquiry; but the headline for that would be something like, "'Trump Effect' may be causing foreign college applications to level out."

Thanks to Tyler Cowen (Marginal Revolution) for pointing this out.