International student enrolment fell by 15% last year

International student enrolment in universities in the United States fell by 15% last year, a not-unexpected decline that was attributed primarily to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a report released this week. A companion survey suggests a rebound may already be in the making.

Enrolments in the 2020-21 academic year topped out at 914,095, erasing five years above the one million mark, said the report, released on Monday by the Institute of International Education (IIE), a non-profit organisation that tracks annual enrolment trends for the US State Department.

More than 710,000 students were enrolled as undergraduate, graduate and non-degree students. About 200,000 students were participating in a programme that allows students who have completed their academic studies to remain in the United States to work.

Despite travel, health and enrolment challenges during the pandemic, nearly 150,000 international students were able to begin their US studies, either in person or online. That helped to blunt the steep drop in first-time enrolments, which were down 46% from the previous year.

Numbers of returning international students declined by 3%. Numbers of students gaining work experience dropped about 10%, though the report noted that the decline in working students was likely also due to a policy change announced in 2016 that reduced the base number of eligible candidates. Many English language programmes for non-degree students were cancelled.

The findings prompted the US higher education community to reiterate its commitment to return the numbers to its “pre-pandemic, high-water mark ... set in 2015”, when enrolments reached the one million mark for the first time. It also pledged to support the Biden administration’s vow last summer to develop a national strategy of federal actions and policies toward that end.

IIE's annual Open Doors report, based on data provided annually by nearly 3,000 US institutions, “gives us all a benchmark to gauge the progress we are making to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic”, said IIE Chief Executive Officer Allan E Goodman.

Even before the pandemic, enrolment growth was slowing, a trend that has mostly been attributed to the growing global competition for international students along with immigration restrictions imposed during the Trump administration. Biden lifted many Trump-era restrictions in the first few days after his inauguration in January.

Last year, Goodman predicted that pent-up demand, particularly by about 40,000 students who had deferred their admission for one year, would fuel a rise in US enrolments after the COVID pandemic had subsided.

Already, a snapshot survey of 860 US institutions shows a 68% increase in the number of new international student enrolments for the first semester of the 2021-22 academic year, reversing a 46% decline reported by 710 institutions last year at this time.

The total number of new and returning enrolled students increased by 8%, compared with a 17% drop reported last year. The total number of international students, including those pursuing optional training, in autumn 2021 increased by 4%.

Among institutions, 70% reported an increase this semester in new international student enrolment, 10% reported numbers similar to last year, and 20% reported a decrease. Decreases were largest in community colleges which primarily offer associate’s degrees.

Universities that promote international education have long argued that international students bring economic benefits to the United States and in particular to local communities. International students, who represent 5% of all students enrolled in US colleges and universities, contributed US$39 billion to the US economy in 2020, down from US$44 billion the previous year, according to data reported by IIE from the US Department of Commerce.

This year, 99% of responding institutions said they are holding classes in person or implementing a hybrid model, and about 65% of international students are living on or near campus in the United States. Of those, 72% require students to wear masks. In addition, 72% are making COVID-19 vaccines available to their students (both international and local), faculty and staff, while 48% require vaccinations.

US study abroad

IIE also reported a 53% decline in the number of US students participating in study abroad programmes in spring and summer of 2020, a drop that also was attributed to the coronavirus.

Most of the drops took place in the spring and summer of 2020. During spring 2020, emergency efforts returned a reported 55,000 students to the United States as the pandemic was beginning to spread. Summer 2020 study abroad programmes decreased by 99%, the report says. The availability of online opportunities took the edge off the overall effect of programme cancellations; for example, 242 US institutions reported offering online global experiences to more than 10,400 students.

Countries of origin

Enrolments from all countries of origin and regions saw declines due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the percentages of drops were generally lower in those parts of the world that share similar times zones with the United States.

Enrolments from China and India declined by 14.8% and 13.2%, respectively, but these two easily remained the top sending countries. The snapshot survey found that those countries are the focus of this year’s student recruitment campaigns for many colleges and universities.

Countries with steep enrolment declines include South Korea and Saudi Arabia.


Louise Jane Nicol on the University World News Facebook page:

I found the breakdown & various charts very useful!

“The latest figures on international enrollment are bleak. Fifteen percent fewer foreign students attended US higher education institutions in 2020-21 than the year before, according to the annual Open Doors report, compiled by the Institute of International Education and the US Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

Those declines likely dealt a bruising blow to the colleges that rely on these students to add cultural diversity to their campuses and bring in a key source of tuition revenue.”

Asia Careers Group SDN BHD – Investing in International Futures