Declining International Student Numbers Stabilize

The coronavirus pandemic forced normal life to an abrupt halt in 2020, disrupting entire industries and national economies. Travel was limited and, in some cases, prohibited. The grim reality of what that has meant for international students and the U.S. colleges and universities that welcome them is detailed in the latest Open Doors Report on International Education, released today.

Among the international enrollment findings of the annual Open Doors Report:

— The total number of international students at U.S. universities dropped by 15% from 1,075,496 in 2019-2020 to 914,095 in 2020-2021.

— The number of new international students enrolling in U.S. universities dropped by 45.6% in that time frame.

— China and India, who remain the largest sources of origin for international students coming to the U.S., sent 14.8% and 13.2% fewer students, respectively, in that time period.

The Institute of International Education and the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs produced the report. To account for international students who took online classes, the definition of international students was expanded in this year’s report to include those studying in person or online at a U.S. university.

“This may include international students studying in person on U.S. campuses, taking classes online in the United States, taking classes online from abroad, or students on optional practical training, or OPT,” says Mirka Martel, IIE head of research, evaluation and learning.

Under OPT, or optional practical training, international students can work for 12 months in a U.S.-based job related to their field of study. International students on an F-1 visa can participate in OPT programs while enrolled in a U.S. college or after completing their degree program.

[Read: What to Know About Optional Practical Training Work Authorization.]

International student growth has been sluggish in recent years, with a .05% increase for the 2018-19 school year and a 1.8% decline for 2019-2020, per IIE data. This year marks the first time that the U.S. saw international enrollment decline in consecutive years since 2005-2006.

The shrinking number of international students in the U.S. isn’t surprising given the circumstances, experts say.

“We’re dealing with remarkable repercussions from the pandemic,” says Douglas L. Becker, founder and CEO of Cintana Education. He notes the dire economic consequences of COVID-19, particularly for prospective international students in countries where incomes are much lower than in the U.S.

In addition to economic challenges, others point to policies and political rhetoric that made international students feel unwelcome.

“The Trump administration basically put out an unwelcome mat for international students,” says Hafeez Lakhani, founder and president of Lakhani Coaching. He also flags issues for students in obtaining visas and sponsorship for employment, and says the international students and families he works with often have safety concerns about living in the U.S.

The Fall and Rebound of International Student Enrollment

Alongside the Open Doors Report, IIE also released the 2021 Fall International Student Enrollment Snapshot. If the Open Doors Report — sourced with survey data from more than 3,000 colleges — painted a grim picture, the 2021 fall snapshot offers some optimism.

“Next fall, next November, we will have the most comprehensive view of these trends,” Martel explains. “It is really just a snapshot or a subset of institutions who reported on this data this fall.”

Compared to the more in-depth Open Doors Report, the fall 2021 snapshot is a smaller subset of colleges with findings reported from more than 860 institutions. But early signs for fall 2021 are a reported 68% increase in new international student enrollments and an increase of 4% in the overall number of enrolled international students.

[See: Campus Resources for International Students.]

While overall numbers of international students in the U.S. fell in 2020, interest from overseas applicants remains high, experts say. At Common App, a popular college application portal, applications from prospective international students are up 51% year over year.

“From our vantage point, we have seen that students want to study in the U.S.,” says Jenny Rickard, president and CEO of Common App.

In fact, she says, international applications have been climbing, with increases of 19% for the 2020-2021 school year and 13% for 2019-2020.

Despite the rising number of applicants from overseas, however, international student matriculation has remained flat or in decline.

“What we saw from an enrollment perspective, clearly, is students aren’t actually getting here,” Rickard says.

Obstacles Remain for International Students

By comparison, 2021 and 2020 were vastly different years. The advent of coronavirus vaccines has allowed college life to largely return to normal compared to 2020, when schools scrambled to transition online and sent many domestic students home to contain the virus.

“I think the most committed parents and students have made the decision to go,” says Becker. “I think they believe that in today’s environment of vaccinations and better safety protocols, that they can expect a safer experience when they go abroad.”

The outlook for international students in the U.S. is mixed, however.

Qualified international students may have an easier time getting into U.S. colleges than before, since many schools are hurting for enrollment, Lakhani says. While this isn’t true among the most selective colleges, Lakhani notes that the U.S. offers many quality institutions that international students should be able to get into.

However, those opportunities tend to be limited for students with financial need. Lakhani notes that financial aid is largely lacking for international students, meaning those without the means to pay for a U.S. education will have a hard time obtaining one.

[Explore: 15 Most Affordable Colleges for International Students.]

According to the Open Doors Report, the primary source of funding for 54% of international students is personal and family. Though students may be able to work or participate in OPT, depending on their visa status, costs remain high for many families. International students in the U.S. often pay tuition and fees at rates two to three times higher than their domestic classmates.

The recently declining number of international students coupled with slumping domestic enrollment could spell disaster, says Lakhani, who suggests that the general trend could lead to cuts in financial aid for domestic students and the closure of academic departments and even some colleges.

Becker says that new models are needed to bring costs down for international students given the unsustainable prices. He expects families to look for cheaper and more flexible options. “I think that parents may wish for their students to begin their studies in their home country and then transfer for the rest of their degree as a way of perhaps easing into the new, reopened world.”

What the Pandemic Meant for U.S. Students Abroad

In addition to details on the international student population in the U.S., the Open Doors Report also offers insights on U.S. study abroad programs. The number of Americans studying abroad fell from 347,099 to 162,633 for the 2019-2020 school year.

Among the U.S. study abroad findings of the Open Doors Report:

— Americans studying abroad declined 53% from the 2018-2019 school year to 2019-2020.

— Spain was the top destination for U.S. students, with 12.2% of Americans studying there.

— Europe was the top region for U.S. study abroad participation, with 57.9% of all U.S. students.

New York University was the leading institution that awarded credit for study abroad, with 3,403 students doing so in 2019-20.

Elon University in North Carolina had the highest participation among universities granting doctoral degrees, with 96.8% of students studying abroad.

According to an IIE press release, “declines in U.S. study abroad programming occurred primarily during the 2020 spring and summer durations,” when the pandemic hit.

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