International Enrollment Continues Rebound From Pandemic Lows

Colleges and universities continue to pursue and accept international students, mainly for hybrid or in-person classes.
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Updated on September 29, 2023
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  • International students remain important for colleges' bottom line.
  • Trends point toward schools continuing to prioritize in-person learning versus remote options.
  • Schools also expect U.S. students to study abroad more in the coming semesters.

American colleges and universities are poised to bring back international students following massive enrollment declines caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

International travel restrictions and an overall shift to remote learning stunted the flow of applications from students outside the country for much of 2020 and 2021. However, a new snapshot survey of institutions from the Institute of International Education (IIE) for the spring 2022 semester shows that most schools expect an increase in applications and enrollments of international students for the upcoming academic year.

The expectations are already coming to fruition, as 65% of participating institutions reported an increase in applications for the 2022-23 school year.

Schools anticipate similar progress for study abroad programs, as 83% noted an increase in study abroad participants for next year compared to the 2021-22 year.

The Spring 2022 Snapshot Survey from IIE uses responses from 559 colleges and universities that enrolled 49% of all international students over the last two years.

International Enrollments on the Upward Swing

Many institutions count on the tuition and other expenses international students pay, so an increase in their enrollment is welcome news.

The Open Doors 2021 Report on International Educational Exchange from IIE noted a 15% decrease in international students due to the pandemic. While these numbers began to rebound for the 2021-22 academic year, only 43% of schools reported an increase in international student applications that year, while 38% noted a decrease.

Quotation mark

For the upcoming 2022-23 year, 65% of schools reported an increase in international applications, while only 12% saw the volume of international applications drop, according to the latest snapshot survey. Master's colleges and universities (76%), doctoral universities (73%), and community colleges (68%) reported the largest gains.

Notably, most programs are bringing back all students for mostly in-person learning.

Fifty-five percent of schools said their international students enrolled in in-person classes only, while another 34% said most of their students attended class in person. That is compared to 8% of schools that said all their students enrolled in in-person classes for the spring 2021 semester and 44% of schools that said students take more than half of their classes in person.

The Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) recently issued guidance allowing schools to continue to enroll international students in remote learning programs. Before March 2020, international students could not enroll in online classes and still stay compliant with the terms of their student visas.

This guidance only applies to students enrolled at a U.S. college or university in March 2020.

However, it seems fewer institutions are taking advantage of these lax regulations, as the number of in-person-only programs continues to grow year over year, according to the IIE snapshot survey.

U.S. Students Eager to Study Abroad

Study abroad participation and offerings have similarly rebounded over the past two years.

Most reporting institutions said they offered only in-person study abroad options for the summer 2022 semester. This is the first time since the onset of the pandemic that most study abroad options were in person (58%), while another 31% were hybrid programs.

Forty-three percent of institutions reported that they canceled all of their study abroad programs in summer 2021. Fifteen percent offered in-person programs only.

Those figures are improving further into the academic year. Ninety-one percent of schools will have some form of in-person study abroad in the fall 2022 semester, according to IIE's report.

The 2022-23 school year is also the first time since the start of the pandemic that most institutions (83%) said they anticipate the number of study abroad students to increase from last year. For the 2021-22 year, only 35% of institutions reported an anticipated increase.

Approximately 81% of schools require students to have received a COVID-19 vaccine to study abroad, per the report.