International Student Applications Rebound at U.S. Colleges

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  • International applications to U.S. colleges have increased following pandemic-related declines.
  • Colleges are eager to welcome international students back for in-person learning.
  • President Biden's more lenient travel and immigration policies could be spurring their return.

This fall, U.S. colleges will welcome a throng of new international students for in-person learning. A snapshot survey by the Institute of International Education (IIE) reveals a marked increase in international student applications to U.S. colleges, potentially reversing pandemic-related declines.

In fall 2020, during the height of the pandemic, an IIE survey found enrollments of new international students had shrunk by 43%. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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For the 2021-22 academic year, with most colleges nationwide planning on in-person learning, 43% of institutions report an increase in international student applications compared to 2020 levels. Graduate schools are even more popular — nearly 60% report an increase in international applications.

The U.S., far and away the top destination country for college students studying away from home, has nevertheless seen years of flat or falling rates of new international enrollees since 2016.

Educators anticipated the downward trend would reverse with the new presidential administration. A series of policy changes under former President Donald Trump, widely seen as unwelcoming to international students, impacted students' eligibility to travel to the U.S., attain visas, and receive financial aid.

In his first week in office in January, President Biden ended the ban on travel to the U.S. from several majority-Muslim countries. He also extended COVID-19 emergency grants to students in the DACA program. Biden's proposed U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 would further reform the U.S. immigration system.

While U.S. colleges are primed to reopen to international students, admissions offices expect that not all students will be able to come. Visa backlogs and closed consulates threaten to delay international students' return to American campuses.

According to IIE, three-quarters of schools surveyed will permit international students to defer enrollment till spring 2022. Half said they would offer international students remote alternatives.

Vaccine Requirements Impact Foreign Students

International applications are surging at selective private schools, which are also more likely to have COVID-19 vaccine requirements in place this fall. Nearly 500 U.S. colleges say that students must be vaccinated against COVID-19 before returning to campus.

While just 14% of all colleges surveyed by IIE will require the new vaccines, the list includes most big-name universities as well as public flagship institutions. Forty-five percent do not intend to require the vaccines for students or employees.

Whether or not schools make the vaccines mandatory, college leaders say it will take high vaccination rates for campus life to resume. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that "fully vaccinated" campuses can fill in-person classes and lose the social distancing and mask mandates.

In the U.S., which has among the highest COVID-19 vaccination rates in the world, anyone over the age of 12 can receive a COVID-19 shot. Not all international students have access to the vaccines in their home countries.

Nearly two-thirds of U.S. institutions (64%) plan to offer the emergency vaccines to all faculty, staff, and students — including international students.

Removing Standardized Tests Eases International Applications

Last year, a spate of colleges announced they would no longer require applicants to submit SAT or ACT test scores.

The decision was motivated in part by logistics: The College Board, which administers the SAT, and the ACT testing agencies were forced to postpone test dates over the spring and summer, throwing a wrench in many applicants' plans.

Aside from the pandemic, standardized college-entrance exams have come under scrutiny for encoding bias in the college admissions process. While high scores are reliable indicators of college persistence, they are also strongly correlated with family income. Doing well on the tests may boil down to being able to afford test prep.

This year, the IIE survey found that 48% of U.S. institutions are offering students alternatives to standardized testing requirements. The new leniency around these rules could ease the application process for international students, particularly those from underrepresented backgrounds who may struggle to get to testing facilities.

College Budgets Rely on International Student Tuition

Colleges are eager to welcome back international students, whose full-price tuition buoys institutional income. The IIE found that 90% of institutions plan to offer in-person learning to international students. More than three-quarters plan to spend as much or more on recruiting international students than before.

Most countries will send as many or more students to the U.S. than previously. China is the exception, with applications down 18% compared to last year, though it likely will remain in the top spot of countries sending students. Applications from the second leading country, India, are up over 20%.

While colleges have financial incentives to welcome international students back to campus, the presence of foreign students is also a proven boon to campus life. International peers promote interactions across cultures, expose American students to global perspectives, and challenge assumptions about both the U.S. and foreign countries.

Feature Image: Xinhua News Agency / Contributor / Getty Images is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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