International Student Enrollment Drops Sharply Due to COVID-19

International Student Enrollment Drops Sharply Due to COVID-19
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By Anne Dennon

Published on December 21, 2020

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When the COVID-19 pandemic prompted campuses and borders to close this spring, international students faced a rapid-fire series of new immigration rules. Alongside travel bans and closed consulates, extraordinary decisions by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) caused chaos and confusion among college students and administrators alike.

This fall, the total number of international students at U.S. colleges, including those attending online from overseas, fell 16%. Meanwhile, enrollment of new international students decreased a whopping 43%. While this most recent downturn is unprecedented, the growth rate in the number of international students has been falling for years.

Most colleges anticipated a sharp decline in international enrollment this year due to COVID-19. Some institutions, including the University of Arizona, projected losses of up to 80% in new international students. But while many international students have been forced to change their plans, with thousands deferring to a future term, most remain stateside.

International Students Face Challenges Entering the U.S.

The U.S. welcomes a little over 1 million international students each year. F-1 and J-1 international students hold U.S. nonimmigrant visas, permitting them to stay in the country as long as they remain enrolled in school. Each of the past four years, the U.S. approved the visa extensions of some 200,000 international students, permitting them to stay and work an additional 1-3 years after graduation.

But in 2020, the rules changed. Over the summer, ICE announced that nonimmigrant international students attending colleges that would be online-only in the fall must either leave the country or transfer to another college with in-person options.

Colleges nationwide opposed the rule, saying it put unfair pressure on international students to attend in-person courses — as well as unfair pressure on colleges to reopen campuses. In response, Harvard and MIT brought a federal lawsuit against the new policy, and just one week later a judge reverted it back to the original rule, allowing international students to take online classes in the U.S. during the pandemic.

Already enrolled international students are still welcome in the U.S., even if their course of study has moved 100% online. But first-year students face far more challenges getting stateside.

Already enrolled international students are still welcome in the U.S., even if their course of study has moved 100% online. But prospective international students who would have begun their programs after the pandemic began face far more challenges getting stateside. At present, both immigration policy and delayed paperwork stand in students' way.

In terms of policies, first-year international students cannot legally enter and study in the U.S. if their program is being conducted entirely online.

Even for students whose programs offer in-person components — and who may therefore legally study in the U.S. — many were unable to obtain a visa this year due to U.S. embassies and consulates shutting down. Most consulates didn't reopen until July, and some have still yet to resume visa appointments.

Fewer International Students Means Less Money for Schools

The dearth of international students this term — particularly first-year students — spells trouble not just for the students themselves but for schools and the economy, too. International students financially boost the country: In 2019-20, they contributed $38.7 billion to the U.S. economy and supported 416,000 jobs.

In 2019-20, international students contributed $38.7 billion to the U.S. economy.

International students also help colleges by providing millions of dollars annually through tuition. While most American students pay significantly less than colleges' sticker prices thanks to a combination of lower in-state tuition prices, federal financial aid, and scholarships, international students typically fork out the full amount, or two to three times what local students pay.

This year, U.S. public and private universities stand to lose a combined $3 billion in revenue from fall's international student enrollment downturn.

Restoring international student exchange to full strength is vital to struggling colleges' livelihood. Without students from abroad paying full tuition prices, many institutions have had to make the difficult decision to raise tuition and cut costs, such as by providing less aid to domestic students, eliminating academic programs, and furloughing staff.

All of these changes could, in the long term, make the U.S. a less attractive destination for prospective international students.

The Future of International Students in the U.S.

Many international students are wary of how both the virus and social unrest are playing out in the U.S. While President Donald Trump encouraged international exchange, he also proposed massive budget cuts to the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

The president's rhetoric and rules around border law have been called xenophobic as well. In 2017, the U.S. banned foreign nationals from Muslim-majority countries. Then in September, the Trump administration canceled the visas of Chinese graduate students with alleged ties to the Chinese military.

Many educators believe a new presidential administration could help entice international students.

Citing Trump and the pandemic, educators say it could take years for international enrollment to bounce back. But many believe the upcoming administration could help entice international students. President-elect Joe Biden supports "employment-based immigration" and is expected to reinstate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program soon after taking office. It's hardly a stretch to assume he'll also relax travel bans and international student visa rules.

Despite the negative outlook, the U.S. remains the most popular destination for international students. Just last year — even under the current administration — the number of international students hit an all-time high.

Experts are hopeful that once the pandemic ends, international student enrollment at U.S. colleges will quickly rebound. Until then, though, both students and schools will continue to face obstacles to their success.


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