International Student Enrollment Plummeted During Pandemic

The 2020-21 academic year saw the sharpest decline in international enrollees in more than 70 years, according to a new report.

November 16, 2021 · Updated on November 17, 2021

International Student Enrollment Plummeted During Pandemic
Photo by kaz_c / E+ / Getty Images

  • Just 4.6% of the student body last school year was made up of international students.
  • Strict COVID-19 travel restrictions are to blame for the sharp decrease.
  • A recent survey shows some improvement among international enrollment this year.

COVID-19 and pandemic-related travel restrictions caused international enrollment at U.S. colleges and universities to plummet during the 2020-21 academic year.

The number of international students enrolled at U.S. schools dropped 15%, according to the Open Doors 2021 report from the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the Institute of International Education (IIE). These students comprised just 4.6% of the total student body during the 2020-21 academic year, down from 5.5% the year prior.

This marks the largest one-year decline in international enrollment since the U.S. government began tracking this data in 1948.

The dip in total international enrollment was caused largely by an even sharper decline in new international students.

The dip in total international student enrollment was caused largely by a 45.6% decline in new international students.

The Open Doors 2021 Report on International Educational Exchange found that there were only about 145,500 first-time international students that began their higher education studies in the U.S. last school year. That was down 45.6% from the roughly 267,700 students the country attracted the year prior.

The number of new international students enrolling each year has been steadily declining over the past five years, but not nearly at this level. For example, the amount of new international students in the 2019-20 academic year was down just 0.6% from the 2018-19 academic year.

A coalition of eight higher ed advocacy groups rang the alarm with a joint statement on Monday.

"It is essential that the federal government support higher education's efforts to develop a national strategy to increase the number of international students enrolled at U.S. colleges and universities, ensuring that the nation returns to its pre-pandemic, high water mark level set in 2015 of more than 1 million international students," the statement read.

International students are important for colleges and universities financially as these students pay out-of-state tuition and generally must pay for room and board while attending a U.S. institution.

NAFSA: Association of International Educators reported that international students contributed roughly $38.7 billion to the U.S. economy during the 2019-20 school year. That fell to about $28.4 billion in the 2020-21 academic year.

The total number of international students rose 8% this most recent semester compared to last year.

However, it appears it's not all doom and gloom for international enrollment. According to a fall snapshot survey from the IIE, the total number of international students rose 8% this most recent semester compared to last year. There are also promising signs in attracting first-time students, as institutions reported a 68% increase in new international students this semester, according to the report.

The survey also found that less than 4% of international students are studying online at a U.S. institution while living outside the U.S. This time last year, one in five students was studying online while still living abroad.

Associate's colleges are the only institutions still struggling to attract international students. They reported a further 10% drop in internationally enrolled students from last year, while other types of institutions reported increases, according to the IIE survey.