A survey showing the enrollment of new international students declined by 43% in Fall 2020 underestimates the depth of the problems U.S. universities must confront. Most of the drop is due to Covid-19, and the coronavirus pandemic will continue in 2021. Equally pressing, a series of Trump administration policies have made a U.S. education much less attractive to international students. A new plan for international education and employment-based immigration can reverse the trend, according to universities.
“New international student enrollment in the United States and online outside the United States has decreased by 43% in Fall 2020,” according to a survey of 700 U.S. higher education institutions by the Institute of International Education. “Many international students studying at U.S. institutions took advantage of opportunities to begin their studies remotely.”
While news reports emphasized the 43% drop in new international student enrollment, a more in-depth look at the data shows students starting classes online masks a steeper decline in enrollment on campuses. “More new international students began their coursework online outside the United States than inside the United States,” according to the survey. “Responding colleges and universities report that 49% of new international students are in the United States and 51% of new international students are enrolled online outside the United States in Fall 2020. As a result, and not surprisingly, responding colleges and universities report that new enrollment of international students physically in the United States declined by 72%.”
The 72% drop in the new enrollment of international students physically in the United States is in line with a June 2020 National Foundation for American Policy projection that enrollment would decline by over 60% for new international students who could make it to U.S. university campuses in Fall 2020.
The lack of physical presence on U.S. campuses presents a risk of further drops in enrollment. “In my institution, any new international enrollment in the fall was online and thus studying remotely,” said Alan W. Cramb, president of Illinois Institute of Technology, in an interview. “The majority of the students expect to come either in the spring or next fall and took this opportunity to begin their studies online.”
Cramb notes the risk universities face if the coronavirus pandemic prevents those students who enrolled in Fall 2020 from coming to U.S. campuses for the Spring 2021 semester. “If there is no ability to come in the Spring, the ‘melt’ could be significant,” said Cramb. “The only good news is that some consulates are opening for visa interviews in India and Europe, although they may now close, and we have seen some students get visas. We have moved our spring semester back a week to allow students to arrive and then isolate or quarantine before starting classes. It is too early to tell what the endpoint will be with the currently increasing Covid-19 spike.”
Will the news of a vaccine help? “The vaccine is very promising news,” said Cramb. “This will make a difference eventually and we all hope that Fall 2021 could be more normal – if there will be a more normal situation in the future. We are seeing interest and applications both for the Spring and next Fall, but we had those last year and few arrived.”
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the United States had fallen behind other countries in attracting international students. In the 2018-19 academic year, new enrollment of international students at U.S. universities was 10.4% lower than in 2015-16. The 2019-20 academic year (which started prior to the pandemic) marks the fourth consecutive year U.S. universities saw a decline in new enrollment of international students. While enrollment of Indian students in graduate-level computer science and engineering at U.S. universities declined by more than 25% between the 2016-17 and 2018-19 academic, international students from India studying at Canadian universities rose from 76,075 in 2016 to 172,625 in 2018, an increase of 127%, according to the Canadian Bureau for International Education.
What policies could a Biden administration take to reverse the U.S. decline in international students?
International students are vital to the United States and its future, note analysts. By typically paying full tuition, they provide needed revenue and help make many more classes available for U.S. students. As a source of graduate students, international students help retain professors interested in pursuing research, which keep U.S. universities centers for innovation. As a source of talent, international students keep more jobs in the United States, rather than companies devoting more resources to hire high-skilled foreign nationals in other countries. The challenges are significant, but U.S. universities believe with the right set of policies, America can reverse the decline in international students.