New international student enrolments drop by 43% in US

International student enrolments in United States universities declined by 16% in autumn 2020 and drops in new student enrolments were more than twice as steep, at 43%, according to data from a snapshot survey designed to understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on US higher education.

A drop was expected, and researchers anticipate a surge in enrolments after the pandemic has ended, fuelled by pent-up demand and aggressive ongoing recruitment of international students.

It is less clear how quickly that will happen, or whether enrolments will return to the record-high level reached in 2018-19. The rate of increase had been flattening before the pandemic hit in March 2020. In the 2019-20 academic year enrolments declined 1.8%, a separate, more comprehensive set of data released on Monday found. It marked the first year of an enrolment decline since 2005, when the United States was recovering from the effects of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

In all, US universities enrolled 1,075,496 international students in the 2019-20 academic year, the fifth consecutive year in which enrolments topped the million mark. But enrolments were down about 20,000 students from the previous year. For the third straight year, international students in 2019-20 comprised 5.5% of the total US student population.

Findings from both studies were released on 16 November by the New York-based Institute of International Education (IIE), which tracks enrolment trends for the US government. More than 700 US higher education institutions responded to the more recent snapshot survey, which was conducted in collaboration with nine partner higher education organisations.

More than 2,900 institutions responded to IIE’s annual Open Doors report, which offers a fuller longitudinal picture of international student mobility based on data for the 2019-20 year. Next year’s Open Doors report will reflect trends that emerged after the pandemic struck.

The coronavirus is expected to influence international student enrolment trends worldwide, IIE President Allan Goodman noted. Data on the global fallout so far in higher education has mostly focused on the economic impact. Australian universities, for example, were bracing for losses of about US$3.3 billion this year because of the pandemic.

In the United States, the American Council on Education last month sought US$120 billion in new federal support to stave off what it said could be “catastrophic consequences”.

For many universities and countries, international student tuition fees are a critical source of revenue. International students contributed US$44 billion and about 450,000 jobs to the US economy in 2019-20, the Open Doors 2020 report said, citing US Department of Commerce figures.

About 20% of all international students are enrolled in US universities, and the United States maintains its lead in the market share of all international students, according to calculations by IIE researchers.

But that share has been dwindling as more countries in recent decades welcome a growing number of students choosing to travel abroad for their studies.

Moreover, COVID-19 is not the only factor influencing US enrolment trends. A less welcoming climate for international students arising during the Trump administration, including tighter visa restrictions and xenophobic rhetoric, along with increased competition from other countries, appears to have also cut into the US share.

Of particular concern is COVID-19’s impact on new international student enrolments, which typically offer a preview of future enrolment growth. Those numbers appeared to be stabilising after a 6.6% drop in 2017-18, the year after Trump was elected president and his policies began to take effect. Declines in new students flattened, to -.09% in 2018-19 and -.06% in 2019-20. But the COVID snapshot survey found enrolment of new students in autumn 2020 down a startling 43 %.

“We’ve never had a decrease like that,” said IIE President Goodman.

US organisations involved in international higher education were overwhelmingly positive in their response to election results naming Joe Biden the US president-elect.

“The past four years have been one of the most challenging periods in the history of our field,” Esther D Brimmer , CEO and executive director of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, said last week in a statement congratulating Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris. “We are eager to work with the Biden-Harris administration.”

On his first day in office in January 2021, President-Elect Joe Biden is expected to repeal Trump-era bans that restrict travel from a number of mostly Muslim-majority countries and prevent children who entered the United States with their parents and lack legal documentation from attending US universities.

The Trump administration still has time to finalise a proposed rule to limit the duration of student visas before Biden takes office on 20 January 2021.

Deferrals and recruitment

US universities are well-positioned to accommodate an anticipated rebound in international student numbers “when it’s safe to travel”, Goodman said, noting that institutions responding to the snapshot survey reported deferrals of nearly 40,000 students.

Most respondents said they had committed more resource to recruiting and retaining international students. For example, 82% reported an increase in virtual recruitment, 64% had increased their budgets for international student recruitment and about 56% are recruiting international students at US high schools.

China and India remained the two largest sources of international students in the United States, together contributing 52% of all international students in 2019-20.

More than half of institutions responding to the 2020 snapshot survey said they are focused on student recruitment in China.

Anthony Koliha, director of the office of global educational programmes at the US State Department, said the government remains “committed to welcoming qualified international students”, noting in particular that “we have incredible talent coming in from China and we want to keep it that way”.

Goodman said many institutions also have developed and strengthened remote learning strategies that are likely to remain in place after the pandemic subsides. About one in five international students are studying online from abroad this semester, the snapshot found.

The snapshot found, for example, that 99% of participating institutions reported holding classes online or offering a hybrid model combining both in-person and online coursework; 68% had adopted course schedules and online teaching methods that accounted for time zone differences, and 29% said they would continue to provide emergency funding to international students on their campuses.

The pandemic is “teaching us how to teach and care for students”, including those “who are unable to travel to the United States”, Goodman said.