International students studying in Hawaii spent $225 million in the 2016-17 school year, a 25 percent dip from the year before, according to a report released Wednesday by the state’s resource center for economical and statistical data.

Foreign student spending in the Aloha State decreased from the $302 million spent in the 2015-16 school year, a sign of lower enrollment among foreign students, according to the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.

The agency’s report is culled from responses from 27 institutions across the academic spectrum, including colleges as well as primary and secondary schools serving 10,800 international students.

University of Hawaii. McCarthy Mall. 2 sept 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
At the University of Hawaii, international students are increasingly interested in short-term programs. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The decrease in foreign student enrollment aligns with what’s happening around the country, according to researchers.

“This is not only a Hawaii phenomenon, this is a national phenomenon,” said Eugene Tian, a state economic research administrator with DBEDT.

In Hawaii, most international students are from Asia — most come from Japan, followed by South Korea, then China. The Asian countries have stepped up their efforts to keep students at home, creating more competitive academic systems.

“This reflects demographic changes in Asia,” said Joanne Taira, senior executive of international and strategic initiatives in the University of Hawaii system. “The education systems in Asia are very well developed, particularly in Japan. Some of their top programs now have English degree programs. The national government has been pushing internationalization.”

The average annual spending per international student in Hawaii in the 2016-17 school year was $24,139, which accounts for tuition and fees and living expenses, according to the DBEDT report, which conducted similar surveys in 2009, 2015 and 2016.

The $225 million in foreign student spending in 2017 added $484 million to the state’s total economic output, generated $32 million in state taxes and supported about 5,000 jobs, according to the report.

“Every two (foreign) students support one job in Hawaii,” Tian pointed out. “That’s an important part.”

The bulk of the economic impact in Hawaii comes from degree-seeking foreign undergraduates, followed by foreign students enrolled in short-term training programs, followed by foreign graduate students.

Taira said the rate of foreign student enrollment in the UH system has been steady at about 5 percent over the last three years. But the university has noticed a spike in interest in short-term programs, where foreign students may only come for a semester or so then leave.

“We’d like to do a lot more, but we’re noticing the trends are changing and that we have to be responsive,” she said.

Indeed, short-term foreign students accounted for nearly two-thirds of the total international students represented in the DBEDT report, though they leave a smaller economic footprint.

While a long-term degree-seeking foreign student in Hawaii spent on average $35,341 in tuition, fees and living expenses, a student enrolled in a shorter program spent only $12,801 on average, according to the DBEDT report.

The one area where Hawaii did see an increase in foreign student enrollment from the previous year was among middle school and high-schoolers in private schools: there were 371 such students last school year compared to 287 the year before. Average per capita spending in 2017 among this group was close to $38,000.

To continue attracting foreign students to the state, Hawaii has formed a consortium of schools called the “Study Hawaii Ambassador Program.”

While the Trump administration’s travel ban has had some impact on foreign student enrollment in colleges around the United States, it’s unclear to what degree that’s contributing to declining numbers in the islands.

“There are some travel restrictions and that has some impact, but Hawaii students mostly are coming from Japan, Korea and China,” Tian said. “(Those places) want students to stay in their own countries.”

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