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Survey Finds Foreign Students Aren’t Applying to American Colleges

Application and acceptance season is underway at America’s colleges and universities. But this year, some institutions of higher learning may see a noticeable dip in attendance from one group purposely choosing to stay home: foreign students.

Applications from international students from countries such as China, India and in particular, the Middle East, are down this year at nearly 40 percent of schools that answered a recent survey by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

Trump Administration Rhetoric and Travel Ban Turning Away Some Foreign Students, Survey Finds 2:17

Educators, recruiters and school officials report that the perception of America has changed for international students, and it just doesn’t seem to be as welcoming a place anymore. Officials point to the Trump administration's rhetoric surrounding immigration and the issuing of a travel ban as having an effect.

"Yes, we definitely are sounding the warning," said Melanie Gottlieb, deputy director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, adding, "We would hope that the [Trump] administration would say [to] cool the rhetoric a bit around immigration."

Former and potential foreign exchange students told NBC News that they're leery of what might happen to them once they step foot into the United States.

Reporter's Notebook: Why Foreign Students Are Turning Away U.S. Colleges 0:59

In Cairo, Momen Rihan, who spent a few months as an exchange student in America and decided not to come back, said he's been observing posts on social media from other travelers.

"They say they face problems at airports when they try to check into the United States because they are Arab," Rihan said.

Related: International College Students Leery of Trump Could Cost U.S. Billions

Taiwanese student Vicky Sung, who is deciding whether to attend University of Southern California or Boston University, said she's mindful of recent attacks on foreigners living and working in the United States. In February, two Indian-born men working in Kansas were shot and one of them killed in what federal prosecutors are calling a hate crime because the shooter allegedly said, "Get out of my country."

"Safety is a big concern for choosing which university to go to," Sung said, "or even whether to go at all.”

Her friend, Yi Zhihui of China, also expressed concern about whether Trump will make visa’s more restrictive if tensions with China over trade or other political issues heat up.

"I consider education sort of an investment, and if my visa gets canceled and I can’t enter the country, that’s kind of investment failure," he explained.

Image: Education consultants talk with visitors about studying in the United States during an education expo in Wuhan, central Chinas Hubei province, July 6, 2013.
Education consultants talk with students about studying in the U.S. during an expo in Wuhan, central China's Hubei province. Sun xinming / Sun xinming - Imaginechina

But a lot is at stake, too, for the extremely competitive world of American higher education.

Colleges and universities across the country heavily recruit international students to add diversity, offer a global perspective and in many cases, significantly add to the bottom line.

The number of foreign students topped 1 million for the first time in 2016. They generated some $32 billion dollars in revenue, which supported more than 400,000 jobs, according to the Association of International Educators.

Some education professionals warn a drop in international students could lead to faculty cuts, higher tuition and the loss of programs.

"I think at this point, outreach is crucial to convince students and their parents that a U.S. education is still worth the risk," Gottlieb said.

Some students say the worst part is all the uncertainty, and not about whether they’ll get into their top school choice. Still, Zhou Linli of Beijing said she remains determined to attend UCLA.

"I hope my university will help me overcome any adverse policies by the Trump administration," she said. "I don’t think the American public will let anything too extreme happen."