Colleges across U.S. absorb historic international enrollment losses

COVID-19 and resulting travel barriers caused unprecedented international enrollment losses, down 15% nationally. The drop among new international students was even more jarring, down 46% from the previous year. Dreamstime/TNS

PITTSBURGH — A new report confirms what college leaders had feared: COVID-19 and resulting travel barriers caused unprecedented international enrollment losses — down 15% nationally. The drop among new international students was even more jarring, down 46% from the previous year.

The stark losses are detailed in an annual survey released Monday by the Institute of International Education in conjunction with the U.S. Department of State. It drew data from 3,000 colleges and universities for the 2020-21 academic year, the most current available.

It was the largest loss since IIE’s Open Doors report debuted more than 70 years ago. Unlike previous slumps linked to the global economy or political climate, this one rode a dangerous pathogen that shuttered campuses in March 2020 and reordered how students took classes, if they could enroll at all.

In Pennsylvania, the sixth-largest host state, even top destinations such as Carnegie Mellon University, Penn State University and the University of Pittsburgh registered double-digit percentage losses. Their numbers fell by 15%, 11% and 20%, respectively.

Even so, officials say they see cause for optimism. A smaller snapshot of 860 campuses using data from this fall indicates a rebound is underway, with new international enrollment up by 68% and overall by 4%.

Despite COVID-19, America remained the top destination for international students globally. Colleges and universities showed flexibility and resilience in welcoming students who took some or all of their classes remotely, in many cases from their home countries, said Allan Goodman, president and CEO of IIE.

“Academic mobility occurs even during a pandemic. When it’s controlled, and when it’s over, there is a surge of the kind we very much hope to see because people have deferred their dreams to study abroad but have not abandoned them,” he told reporters in a press call previewing the IIE findings.

Nevertheless, “the last 20 months have been incredibly challenging for all of us,” said Matthew Lussenhop, the acting assistant secretary for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA), U.S. Department of State. “I would reiterate that the United States and the entire U.S. government are deeply committed to international education.”

The new survey put total international enrollment at 914,095 in 2020-21, down from 1,075,496 students the year before, a drop of more than 161,000 students.

Supporters of international exchange say students from overseas enrich campuses with their views and lived experiences and that, as graduates, they return to their countries with a better appreciation of America and its culture. Their studies infused $39 billion into the economy, the study found, down from $44 billion the previous year.

International students represent about 5% of the nation’s college and university enrollment and for years have become an increasingly important part of the bottom line on many campuses, not only in major cities but rural areas. The virus compounded visa and other travel challenges, including the odds of getting an airline flight.

“The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the international education landscape on a global scale that had not happened before,” said Mirka Martel, IIE’s head of research, evaluation and learning.

Even so, losses were far lower at 3% for continuing students.

“International students who were already enrolled at U.S. higher education institutions remained committed to studying in the United States,” she said.

China and India saw double-digit enrollment losses but remained the first- and second-leading senders of international students. Those two countries alone account for more than half of all international enrollment in this country. The top 25 sending countries all saw losses, according to IIE.

Among U.S. campuses, the largest international enrollment was once again at New York University, with 17,050 students, down from 21,093 in 2019-20. Penn State University slipped by two spots to 14th-largest nationally with 8,267 students, down from 9,244 the previous year. Carnegie Mellon University slipped from 17th- to 18th-largest host institution with 7,396 students, compared with 8,694 in 2019-20.

The IIE, headquartered in New York City, is a not-for-profit organization that promotes global education. It produces the Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange each year in partnership with the State Department’s Bureau of Cultural and Educational Affairs.

China sent 15% fewer students. Its 317,299 total accounted for 35% of total international enrollment in the U.S. After China, India sent the most students in 2020-21 at 167,582, down 13%; then South Korea, 39,491 students, down 21%, and Canada 25,143, down 3%.

Among sending nations, the largest percentage drop was Germany, off 42%, France, 33% and Saudi Arabia, 29% .Saudi Arabia’s total has shrunk by nearly half since 2015-16 in a trend that officials say is tied to factors including a drop in student aid available in that country.

California, though down by 17%, remained the nation’s top host state with 132,758 students. Next was New York, 106,894, down 16%; Texas, 67,428, down 13%; Massachusetts, 66,273, down 10%; and Illinois, off by 15% to 44,004.

Pennsylvania hosted the sixth-largest number of international students, although its 42,477 total was off by 15%, mirroring the national decline. After Penn State and Carnegie Mellon, with the two largest international enrollments in this state, the University of Pennsylvania was third with 6,562 students, down 10%; and the University of Pittsburgh was fourth, with 3,296, down 20%

The pandemic hit study abroad hard as well. A total of 162,633 students ventured abroad in 2019-20, the most current data available, down by 53% from 347,099. a year earlier The losses were focused on spring and summer, and there was a 99% drop in summer study abroad.

The top destinations for U.S. students continued to be Europe, Latin America, the Caribbean and Asia, despite seeing double-digit losses.

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