International students face ongoing uncertainty, travel restrictions

A year into the COVID-19 pandemic, international students around the world still face travel barriers, leaving U.S. colleges and universities wondering whether international enrollment will rebound in the fall, The Wall Street Journal reports.

The total number of international students studying at U.S. institutions fell by 16 percent for the fall 2020 semester, with an especially sharp 43 percent drop in new enrollments. More than 40,000 international students had deferred their enrollment to a future term, in hopes that the pandemic would ease and travel would resume.

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

Now, university leaders are cautioning that ongoing travel bans, visa processing delays, and consulate capacity constraints could result in a second year of barriers for international students. Students typically submit their visa applications in the spring for fall enrollment, but just 43 of 233 consular posts were operating at full capacity as of March 1.

Experts say that, even if countries prioritize processing student visas, and even if students are willing to travel to open offices to participate in mandatory in-person interviews, current capacity is insufficient. “If they can go to any other country to get a student visa appointment, they will do it,” Leon Fresco, who served as a top immigration-policy official in the Obama administration, told the Journal. “But there is nowhere near enough capacity at consulates abroad for the 100,000 or so students from China that would normally come to the U.S.”

Travel bans also remain in effect for some countries, such as Brazil, Iran, and South Africa. Certain regions of the world still lack ready access to vaccination opportunities, and parents may be reluctant to send their children to the U.S. if COVID-19 continues to spread, says Holly Singh, executive director of Arizona State University’s International Students and Scholars Center.

“There is no single magic bullet that will reopen us to international students this fall,” says Terry Hartle, senior vice president for government relations and public affairs at the American Council on Education. “If there were, we would be pushing that button as hard as we could.”

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