International student enrollment on upswing after pandemic drop-off

Enrollment of international students at U.S. colleges and universities fell sharply in 2020-21 amid the pandemic but appears to be rebounding, according to a new report.

Conducted annually by the Institute of International Education (IIE) in partnership with the U.S. Department of State, the latest Open Doors survey looks at enrollments across approximately 3,000 U.S. colleges and universities during 2020-21. Inside Higher Ed notes that this year’s report uses a broader definition of “international students” than past iterations, counting both international students who studied at a U.S. institution in person, as well as those who did so online, regardless of their location.

Precipitous drop during 2020-21

According to IIE, around 914,000 international students enrolled at U.S. institutions last year, marking a 15 percent decrease from the year prior—and the largest drop since IIE first started publishing the Open Doors report in 1948.

New enrollments drove most of that downturn: they fell by 46 percent in fall 2020, compared with a 3 percent decrease among continuing international students. The Chronicle of Higher Education notes that “the travel restrictions and health concerns that prevented new students from coming to the United States also kept many current students from returning home.”

Overall, in 2020, international students still accounted for 5 percent of all students at U.S. colleges and contributed $39 billion to the U.S. economy, The Washington Post reports. Most attended classes online; just 47 percent of all international students attended in-person classes in fall 2020, according to IIE.

“I think the report confirmed what we all feared and already suspected about last year’s international student enrollment drops,” Dr. Stephanie K. Kim, an assistant professor of the practice and faculty director of higher education administration at Georgetown University, told Diverse Issues in Higher Education.

Snapshot hints at a rebound

A preliminary snapshot of this fall’s international enrollments, however, offers “a really hopeful sign that the enrollment drops are starting to rebound considerably,” Kim says. Colleges surveyed this fall by IIE and nine other higher education organizations reported a 4 percent increase in total international student enrollments, including a 68 percent increase in new international students.

However, the recovery may be uneven, varying by institution type, home country, and degree program. Of the 860 institutions that participated in the snapshot survey, 20 percent said their international enrollments had further decreased this fall, while 10 percent held steady at fall 2020 levels.

Intensifying outreach

Colleges also indicated that they are prioritizing outreach to prospective international students. Seventy-seven percent said their budget for international recruitment had increased or held steady. More than half said their outreach strategies include some combination of social media, online events, and communication from current international students.

Eight higher education institutions this week also released a statement calling on the federal government to develop a national strategy for increasing international student enrollment. In July, federal officials from the State and Education departments issued a statement about “a renewed U.S. commitment to international education,” signaling a potential “first step toward a federal strategy,” Inside Higher Ed writes.

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