Foreign enrollment at U.S. colleges dips due to COVID-19 effect

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Fewer foreign students are enrolling at American colleges and universities as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, which could spell trouble for the financial health of the nation’s higher education institutions. 

U.S. colleges and universities saw a 16% decline in international students during the fall 2020 semester, which includes those studying on their campuses or enrolled online, according to a new report published Monday by the Institute of International Education (IIE). 

During the 2019-2020 academic year, there were 1,075,496 international students studying at American institutions. This fall, there were 903,417. 

The IIE surveyed more than 700 institutions about COVID-19‘s effect on international enrollment.

The decline among new international students was even sharper, 43% in the fall of 2020, according to the report. Nearly 40,000 international students deferred enrollment to a future term, the study found. The findings could signal another financial hurdle for America’s institutions of higher learning, which have already been hit by declines in enrollment from U.S. students due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. 

“The drop was primarily driven by COVID-19,” said Mirka Martel, head of research, evaluation and learning for IIE. “We found that, by and large, travel restrictions due to COVID-19 and other factors out of these institutions’ control were behind the declines.”

In 2019, international students contributed approximately $44 billion to the U.S. economy, in school tuition and other spending, according to the report.  

Zoom fatigue

The significant dip in international enrollment comes as overall enthusiasm wanes for remote learning. The prospect of beginning one’s freshman year of college on Zoom has prompted students to defer their admission or delay their application to college to a future term. 

Some guidance counselors have recommended delaying school for a year to give students a shot at having a traditional college experience. 

But waiting a year or more to start or complete college could have a downside, according to another analysis. That study found there’s a hidden cost to pushing college back a year during the pandemic, explaining that it could cost would-be freshman about $90,000 in lifetime earnings by delaying their careers. 

During the 2019-2020 academic year, before the coronavirus pandemic had taken hold in the U.S., international enrollment at American colleges and universities dipped nearly 2%, according to the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the IIE’s 2020 Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange, released Monday. 

An off year

Martel expects 2020 to be an off year for colleges and universities as a result of the pandemic. However most institutions surveyed, 64%, still plan to invest in efforts to recruit international students at the same or even higher levels than the year before.

“Institutions are still focusing on international students,” Martel said. 

Still, the U.S. hasn’t lost its appeal to college applicants abroad. It remains the top destination for higher education for international students.  

For the 2019-2020 academic year, the largest number of international students hailed from China, followed by India, according to the report. STEM fields of study remained the most popular, with more than half of all international students in the U.S. pursuing majors in science and technology. 



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