Colleges bracing for lower international student enrollment, survey shows

Almost 90 percent of U.S. colleges and universities expect that international student enrollment will decline in the 2020-21 academic year, according to a new survey conducted by the Institute of International Education (IIE). 

Hoping to better understand COVID-19’s effects on international student mobility and how U.S. colleges and universities are responding, IIE surveyed nearly 600 colleges and universities in all 50 states between April 16 to May 1. Survey participants had hosted more than 519,000 international students on their campuses during 2018-19. 

Thirty percent of respondents said they are bracing for a “substantial decrease” in international student enrollment. “Our analysis indicates that these institutions anticipate that approximately 16 percent of their international student body will not be able to come to campus in‐person in fall 2020,” Mirka Martel, author of the report, told reporters, according to ABC News.

‘The financial impact is huge’

Recognizing that international students face a variety of pandemic-related challenges, including health concerns and difficulty obtaining flights and visas for the fall semester, 75 percent of institutions told IIE that they will give international students the option to defer enrollment until later in 2020 or spring 2021. The majority of respondents also indicated that they will offer students an option for online instruction in the fall.

Still, experts predict that some international students may be deterred by U.S. officials’ increasingly hostile rhetoric toward immigrants, or by the constraints of remote learning. International students “want the education for sure,” Tom Dretler, cofounder of Shorelight Education, told the Boston Globe. “They want it on campus, if they can get it. If it has to be online, they’ll do it, if it’s in a manner that works for them. They’re not going to participate in Zoom classes in the middle of the night.” 

“International enrollment is going to plummet like a rock,” predicted Ben Waxman, the chief executive officer of International Education Advantage. “The financial impact is huge, and absolutely devastating.” American colleges and universities rely on international students not only to contribute diverse perspectives and skills to their campus communities but also to strengthen their bottom lines, as many international students pay full tuition. If international enrollment drops off, “It will be a loss to the [U.S.] colleges, to their coffers, and the [U.S.] economy,” said Stephanie Hall, a fellow at the Century Foundation.

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