Enrollment of new international students down 43 percent at U.S. colleges, report finds

The total number of international students enrolled at U.S. colleges and universities fell by 16 percent for the fall 2020 semester, according to a new snapshot survey of more than 700 colleges and universities. Published by the Institute of International Education (IIE), the report shows an especially sharp 43 percent drop in new student enrollments.

Schools surveyed this fall by IIE also reported that more than 40,000 international students had deferred their enrollment to a future term. Among currently enrolled international students, 80 percent are physically studying in the U.S.—compared with 99.6 percent in fall 2019—while 20 percent are based abroad and learning online.

Number of international students declining even before COVID-19

IIE and the U.S. Department of State this week also released their annual Open Doors report, which looked at enrollment trends across more than 2,900 schools and used data from the 2019-20 academic year. The research indicates that the total number of international students studying in the U.S. shrank by 1.8 percent in the 2019-20 academic year—the first year-over-year decline in more than a decade.

In addition, new student enrollments were down 0.6 percent over the year prior, marking the fourth consecutive year of that downward trend, Inside Higher Ed reports. Overall, about 1.08 million international students were studying in the U.S. in 2019-20.

‘Not surprising’

Some experts say these numbers reflect the Trump administration’s efforts to restrict international students’ access to U.S. education, much like its recent proposal to introduce additional student visa regulations.

Related: Georgetown opposes new DHS rule restricting international student stays >

“Unfortunately, this disappointing news is not surprising,” says Esther D. Brimmer, CEO and executive director of NAFSA: Association of International Educators. “For the past four years international students and scholars have had to endure travel bans, executive orders, detrimental regulatory actions, and xenophobic rhetoric from the highest levels of U.S. government. The lack of a coordinated national pandemic response made the situation even more difficult.”

Low international student enrollment brings economic pitfalls

Many higher education leaders are hopeful that President-elect Joe Biden will quickly roll back Trump administration policies that discourage international students from enrolling at U.S. schools. MarketWatch notes that international students not only bring unique perspectives to U.S. campuses but also are a crucial source of tuition revenue. This year’s dip in enrollment will deepen the financial burdens faced by colleges and universities amid the pandemic.

And while many higher ed leaders are optimistic that international students who deferred their enrollment will come to U.S. campuses at a later date, others say the new reports indicate a need for increased attention to international student recruitment, retention, and support.

“This is not happening in a vacuum. Other countries have also advanced their national recruitment and retention strategies for international students,” Miriam Feldblum, executive director of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, told MarketWatch. “It’s not as simple as just reverting back to where we were prior to the current administration, we’re going to have to do more to demonstrate our commitment and our welcome to global talent.”

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