New International Student Enrollment Falls 43% In US

Image Credits: ROBERT CHIARITO/AFP via Getty Images.

COVID-19 has drastically cut international student participation in U.S. colleges and universities, punctuating three years of declining enrollment tied to costs, immigration barriers and perceived chaos in American society.

In the school year that began three months ago, new enrollment of international students dropped 43% because of COVID-19. Nearly 40,000 students — mostly incoming freshmen — have deferred enrollment at 90% of U.S. institutions to a future term. 

The data were compiled and reported by the Institute for International Education and published in its annual Open Doors report about international students in the U.S. It is funded by the U.S. Department of State, which issues visas to students and visitors participating in educational or vocational training.  

“The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted international student enrollment,” IIE report stated. “Many international students studying at U.S. institutions took advantage of opportunities to begin their studies remotely.” 

Of the more than 1 million enrolled international students in the U.S., 20% turned to online learning this semester because of COVID-19 campus shutdowns. While some international students returned to their home countries, others are living off-campus or under strict guidelines on campus.   

COVID-19 emerged on the cusp of 2020, while most university students were on winter break for Christmas and New Year’s. Students returned from points around the globe to their U.S. campuses, but by spring break in March, COVID-19 had become a pandemic and schools were struggling with how to keep their populations safe. Most campuses sent students home, shut down and moved instruction online.  

Students and families pushed back on paying the high cost of tuition and fees, which can reach $70,000 per year for an undergraduate degree in the U.S., and 56% of international students pay out of pocket for their U.S. education. Many requested refunds and discounts for lack of dining and housing facilities, where universities derive the bulk of their student revenue.  

The most recent data about enrollment in the semester that started this fall comes from IIE’s “fall snapshot,” which gathers data from more than 700 schools and is conducted by IIE and nine partner associations of higher education. The Open Doors data for the previous school year from August/September 2019 to May 2020 looks at a larger sample of 2,900 institutions.  

There were 1,075,496 international students in the U.S., down nearly 2% from the previous year of 1,095,299. China and India again comprised more than half of the total. China sent 372,532 students to study in the U.S. while India sent 193,124.  

While Chinese students increased at American schools by 0.8%, India sent 4.4% fewer students to the U.S. from year before.  

At graduate schools, Chinese student numbers increased 3%. Those pursuing Optional Practical Training (OPT) increased 2%. OPT allows students to work in their field of study, typically science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). More than half of all international students pursued STEM degrees.  

Among the top 25 countries to send students to the U.S., 18 showed declines from last year. After China and India, students came to the U.S. from South Korea (-4.7%), Saudi Arabia (-16.5%), Canada (-0.5%), Vietnam (-2.5%), Taiwan (1.5%), Japan (-3%), Brazil (3.8%), Mexico (-5.8%), Nigeria (2.5%), Nepal (-3.8%), Iran (-5.7%), United Kingdom (-3.5%), Turkey (-6.7%), Germany (0.6%), Bangladesh (7.1%), France (-2.8%), Kuwait (-8.9%), Indonesia (-0.7%), Spain (9.5%), Pakistan (-0.2%), Colombia (-3.4%), Malaysia (-10.4%), Venezuela (-11.7%.)  

International students comprise 5.5% of the 19,720,000 students enrolled in U.S. higher education.  

In last year’s Open Door report, institutions indicated some of the reasons for the decline in enrollment, including the high cost of tuition at U.S. colleges and universities, difficulty in getting visas or the insecurity of maintaining a student visa throughout a student’s education, students feeling a lack of welcome in the U.S., negative political rhetoric and news of crime in the U.S. 

This year, NAFSA: Association of International Educators found that the 2019-2020 international enrollment declines cost U.S. colleges and universities $1.8 billion, or 4.4% less than the previous year ($38.7 billion).  

It was the first time that the dollar amount international students contribute to U.S. colleges and universities dropped in 20 years, said NAFSA

“As the economic value decreases, we are reminded of the immense contributions that international students bring to America. We cannot afford to lose these talented individuals to a competitor country,” said NAFSA Executive Director and CEO Esther D. Brimmer.  

“Our policymakers and legislative leaders must reaffirm America’s commitment to international students and scholars because our universities and colleges have never stopped doing so, and neither have our competitor countries,” she added. 

Top hosting states showed declines in the number of students, (total number of students and percentage change): California (160,592, -0.7%), New York (126,911, 2.1%), Texas (77,097, -5.9%), Massachusetts (73,695, 3.7%), Illinois (51,966, -3.3%), Pennsylvania (50,070, -3.4%), Florida (46,221, 0.6%), Ohio (35,508, -4.8%), Michigan (31,408, -5.5%) and Indiana (28,136, -3.3%). 

While Northeastern University in Boston moved up and University of Southern California moved down one rank this year, the top universities otherwise remained New York University (21,093), Northeastern University in Boston (17,491), University of Southern California (17,309), Columbia University (17,145), University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign (13,962), Arizona State University (13,136), University of California-Los Angeles (11,447), University of California-San Diego (11,272), Purdue University in Indiana (11,173), Boston University (11,158), University of California-Berkeley (10,695), Pennsylvania State University (9,244), University of Washington (9,236), University of Michigan (9,000), University of Texas (8,787), University of California-Irvine (8,773), Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh (8,694), University of California-Davis (7,919), Ohio State University (7,894), and Cornell University in New York (7,623).  


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