Social Media Posts Make Misleading Claims About International Student Enrollment

Butler Library, Columbia University, New York City. (Photo by Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

In a tweet earlier this week, Jon Feere, director of investigations at the Center For Immigration Studies, claimed that international students make up more than half of the student populations at two of the universities with the most prominent ongoing anti-Israel protests. “At Northeastern, 58% of students are foreign students,” he wrote. “At Columbia, 55% of students are foreign students.” Stephen Miller, a former senior adviser in the Trump administration, reposted the tweet the next day, earning more than 66,000 views and 1,900 retweets as of May 2. 

But the numbers cited by the post are misleading, as international students do not make up a majority of the student body at either Northeastern or Columbia.

Northeastern University

Feere’s post aligns with an article he published on the Center for Immigration Studies’ website on April 25. In the piece, Feere cites Department of Homeland Security (DHS) data showing an international undergraduate and postgraduate student population of 21,385 at Boston’s Northeastern University in 2022. He then compares this to information provided by Northeastern to the Common Data Set—a collaborative effort to standardize university information—showing a total enrollment of 36,806 during the 2022-2023 school year, meaning foreign students made up approximately 58 percent of Northeastern’s total student population that year. 

This 58 percent figure, however, doesn’t appear to include part-time students, and conflicts with Northeastern’s own independent data set, which shows a total enrollment of 45,468 in the fall of 2022, with an international student population of 17,636—3,253 undergrad students and 14,383 graduate students. By these metrics, foreign students made up approximately 39 percent of the university’s total population—nearly 20 percentage points below Feere’s estimate. The Dispatch Fact Check made calls to several offices at Northeastern, but none could provide a total enrollment figure, so we were unable to determine why DHS data on the foreign student population differs from Northeastern’s own data. But even comparing the higher DHS number to the enrollment total Northeastern posts on its website results in a foreign student percentage that is more than 10 points lower than that cited by Feere.

Columbia University

Feere derives a similarly high foreign student percentage—55 percent—from data on New York City’s Columbia University. According to Columbia, the school had a total enrolled foreign student population of 20,321 in 2023 and a total enrollment of 36,649 in 2022. However, Feere uses Columbia’s foreign student count that includes individuals who have already graduated from Columbia and are engaged in Optional Practical Training (OPT)—a temporary employment program that allows noncitizens who study on F-1 student visas to remain in the U.S. after graduation and work in a field related to their area of study.

While individuals who pursue post-completion OPT do remain on F-1 visas sponsored by their university for the duration of their employment, The Dispatch Fact Check spoke with international student advisers at several schools who said that such OPT participants are generally no longer considered enrolled students. By including individuals participating in OPT, Feere inflates the actual proportion of international students studying at Columbia. According to the university, 13,838 foreign students were actually enrolled in 2023—the vast majority of them graduate students—meaning international students make up approximately 38 percent of its total enrollment. The university does not have full 2023 enrollment data available, so only an approximate cross-year estimate is possible.

Feere defended his calculations in an email to The Dispatch Fact Check, arguing that using DHS and Common Data Set numbers is the most consistent method of measuring foreign student populations because statistics reported by universities can be contradictory and unreliable. He also said that OPT participants should be counted as members of a student body because of universities’ continued responsibility for their sponsorship. 

While Northeastern and Columbia’s foreign student populations may be less than Feere claims, they are still among the highest in the country. Columbia pitches its high international population. “Columbia has one of the largest international student and scholar populations in the U.S.” reads a banner on its international student webpage. Northeastern similarly emphasizes the importance of its international student body, saying that “International students are an integral part of our diverse and inclusive community,” on its international admissions website. However, Feere’s estimates that foreign students make up more than 50 percent of Northeastern and Columbia’s student bodies seem to cherry-pick numbers that inflate foreign student populations, and they contradict numbers reported both independently by the universities and by third-party collegiate statistics providers.

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