Google Trends Shows US Recruitment Problem, and Canada’s Gain

Canada’s success in recruiting international students over the past few years, and the corresponding struggles in the US, have been well documented and much discussed.  There’s also been a lot of speculation and study of the reasons for the divergent paths of the two countries. Canada helps its case with a relatively low cost of living, welcoming and safe environment and ability to work during and after school, ultimately providing a path to permanent residency. The government adopted a formal International Education Strategy four years ago that set out a clear plan to recruit international students, with a goal to reach 450,000 international students by 2022.

In the US, the Administration’s anti-immigration, nationalist and protectionist policies set the opposite tone. H1B visas, some J categories and OPT have all come under attack, add in the travel ban, border wall, regular school shootings, and some of President Trump’s inflammatory tweets and you can quickly understand how the US looks less welcoming and has helped spike Canada’s growth.

Recent reports add data to back up these discussions. The Canadian Bureau of International Education reported in March that the total number of international students in Canada spiked 20% in 2017 to 495,525, blowing past the 2022 goal five years early. Meanwhile, the US State Department released the annual non-immigrant visa report in March, which showed a continued steep decline in F1 visas issued, from 644,233 in 2015, to 471,728 in 2016, to 393,573 in 2017 – a staggering quarter of a million less F1 visas issued in 2017 from two years earlier!

These reports are critical to show us what has actually happened, but they’re all after the fact. The IIE Open Doors Report, released in November of each year and relied upon as a primary bell-weather of the state of international education in the US, is actually over a year old by the time its released – reporting in November on the previous school year. What about evidence of what will happen to international student numbers, before it happens?  That’s where Google Trends come into play.

Google Trends is a publicly available tool showing the popularity of particular searches on Google. You can look at what’s currently trending, or you can look as far back as 2004 for historical data.  In this case, running just two quick comparisons is telling. Here’s the chart showing the number of students worldwide searching the terms “study in Canada” vs. “study in the USA” over the past 2 years:

You can dig as deep as you want within this tool – here’s a similar chart on the prevalence of the same two search terms but this time looking only at students within India, not worldwide, showing a similar divergence:

Potential international students are exploring their options in their desired country months or years before they actually arrive and can be counted in CBIE, State Department or Open Doors numbers. Like the recent QS Applicant Survey 2018, which surveys students on the factors they’re using to make decisions about their international education,  Google Trends helps us look at the top of the funnel, well before any government can track and report on those students. This is interesting to see and think about – but we should remember that the predictive value of Google search terms is uncertain. Many things can happen between the time a student searches Google and the time they arrive on campus. However, these simple charts do lend insight into what’s ahead – if these Google Trends data are accurate future predictors, we’ll see more progress for Canada, and less international students for the USA.

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