A year of unprecedented declines

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What the annual international-student census does, and does not, tell us. And higher-ed groups call on the Biden administration to move forward on a national strategy for international education.


Yes, international educators, 2020 was a horrible, no good, very bad year.

International enrollments fell 15 percent in fall 2020, according to the just-released Open Doors report, the largest one-year tumble in the 72 years the Institute of International Education has been publishing the annual international-student census. By comparison foreign-student numbers declined cumulatively by less than 4 percent in the years following 9/11.

For the first time since the 2014 academic year, the number of international students studying at an American college dipped below one million.

The financial impact was also unprecedented, for campuses’ bottom lines and college-town economies. NAFSA: Association of International Educators reported that the contribution international students make to the broader U.S. economy plummeted 27 percent in 2020, to $28.4 billion.

Meanwhile, study abroad participation fell 53 percent in the 2019 academic year, which includes the first months of the pandemic, with the evacuation of students and shutdown of programs mid-semester. But summer 2020 illustrates the full pandemic halt to education abroat — the number of students fell by 99 percent from the prior year. (I’m going to be taking a separate look at study abroad’s recovery in a separate issue, so please let me know how your college or program has been resuming education abroad amid post-pandemic uncertainty, and I could include your story.)

Here’s more of what Open Doors, which IIE publishes with the U.S. Department of State, does — and does not — tell us about international enrollments:

The declines were driven by a massive fall-off in new international students. New enrollments sank by 46 percent. By contrast, American colleges largely retained continuing students. In fact, the majority of international students enrolled at the beginning of the pandemic remained in the U.S.

As a result, academic programs that enroll students for multiple years were relatively insulated from the enrollment contractions. Overall international enrollments in Ph.D. programs, for instance, dropped by less than 3 percent.

But shorter-term programs with a greater proportion of incoming students were hard-hit. The number of international students at the master’s degree level fell 21 percent. Non-degree and English-language programs lost two-thirds of their foreign students. 

This disparity carried over to certain types of institutions. At community colleges and master’s colleges and universities, international enrollments plunged by a quarter.

This year looks brighter, at least for some. Colleges responding to a snapshot survey conducted by IIE and nine other higher-ed groups reported new enrollments up by 68 percent this fall. Overall enrollments increased 4 percent.

The snapshot includes 860 colleges, which account for about 60 percent of international enrollments, but it’s in line with my own analysis of real-time student-visa issuance data. So far this year, the U.S. government has issued more than 314,000 student visas, including nearly 276,000 between May and August, the most crucial months for fall enrollments. That’s 20,000 more visas than during the summer months of 2019.

What neither the Open Doors nor the student-visa data can tell us, however, is how much this fall’s enrollment trends reflect first-time interest versus pent-up demand. Last fall, IIE reported that 40,000 international students deferred admission.

I reported on one curious, potentially troubling trend in National Student Clearinghouse figures a couple of weeks ago — a rebound among international graduate students but continued enrollment declines among overseas undergrads. The data are only preliminary but worth watching because undergraduate growth had been the driver behind the international-enrollment surge of the past decade.

Keep an eye on India. Over the summer, U.S. consulates in India issued nearly two-and-a-half times the number of student visas as they did over the same months in 2019. 

Consulates in India prioritized student-visa issuance, and we know students there are disproportionately pursuing master’s degrees, which saw especially high deferral rates last fall. But could this be a sign of new growth from a country that has for years run a distant second to China in enrollments?

One final note: Because of the pandemic, IIE changed its definition of “international student” in this year’s report to include international students studying remotely, in the U.S. or their home country. Previously, only student-visa holders were counted in the total.

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Call for a National Strategy for International Ed

Four months after the Biden administration announced a “renewed commitment” to international education, a coalition of higher-ed associations are calling on federal officials to take more decisive action to help international enrollments rebound.

In a joint statement, the groups pressed the government to “partner with the higher education community to develop and implement a national strategy to return international student enrollment and exchanges to pre-COVID 19 numbers.”

This summer’s announcement of a coordinated government focus on global education was greeted with excitement, but at the same time, some in the field wondered how principles would translate into policy

NAFSA released a list of potential actions policymakers can take. And educators have been anticipating the reinstatement of and naming of members to a Homeland Security Advisory Committee to make recommendations to DHS on visa and international-student issues, foreign influence, and other topics affecting higher ed.

Bernie Burrola, vice president for international engagement at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, told me that his organization wasn’t endorsing specific policies. Rather, he said, the need for a unified national strategy for global education is urgent.

“Every one of our peer competitors has a national strategy,” Burrola said. “We’re the only country without an international strategy, and it puts us at a disadvantage.”

Given pre-pandemic declines in new international enrollments, he said the U.S. must be “pro-international student” in order to retain its global market share.

In addition to APLU, the groups signing the statement are the American Association of Community Colleges, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, the American Council on Education, the Association of American Universities, IIE, NAFSA, and the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

Ahead of the Open Doors release, I asked readers to share insights about international-enrollment trends and recruitment strategies this fall. Here are a few of your responses, edited for space.

“In Fall 2021, we experienced a 21 percent increase in international student enrollment to record levels. The number of sending countries increased with a large amount of interest coming from India in our specialized masters programs, which are closely aligned with the labor market needs. Areas of concern are two of our traditional larger sending markets in China and Iran. While the demand and student interest from these countries remains strong, prospective students continue to experience obstacles to receiving student visas preventing them from entering the U.S.  

A larger question remains, will smaller schools that may more heavily lean on agents (we do not use) or tuition discounting (we do not provide) for recruitment find themselves priced out as Covid-19 continues to have a ripple effect on budgets? Longer term, this could cause problems with capacity and ultimately access.”

—Christopher Connor, assistant dean and chief enrollment officer for graduate education, School of Engineering, University of Buffalo

“At Northern Arizona University we saw a fairly positive increase in our international Indian student population for the fall 2021 semester, driven by our graduate student population. I think the fact that many other destinations (Canada, Australia, New Zealand) were still having a lot more travel restrictions encouraged international students from India to consider the U.S. over others. The economic challenges in India have meant that many parents would rather have their children pursue their undergraduate education in India and perhaps consider graduate education overseas later. Also, graduate education overseas has often been considered as a pathway for employability and thus with a slowing economy in India this is a pathway for future professional growth.” 

—Ragh Singh, program manager of global strategic initiatives, Northern Arizona University

“Here’s an interesting dynamic we are seeing: With the decline in the use of standardized tests, admissions officers are relying even more on a host of other “signals” from students to make decisions. These range from supplemental essays to more complex analyses of applicant behavior. This is because admissions offices are getting pressure from above to increase the number of apps while not sacrificing quality or yield.

We’re a part of this dynamic. U.S. colleges rely heavily on our interviews, but it’s still “optional” because admissions officers focus on hitting their app numbers first. Sure, we wish admissions officers were more forthcoming about how they make decisions, but in a time of change and experimentation, the upside for being transparent is admittedly minimal.

Our hearts go out to counselors trying to advise students in this environment. It’s a hard truth of selective admissions that admissions offices want your apps but not necessarily your students. But at the same time, many are seeing this uncertainty as validating the role counselors can play in helping students understand this tricky dynamic.”

—Terry Crawford, CEO of InitialView

“We’ve been doing considerably more Zoom interviews with prospective students again this year, since we can’t travel, as well as attending a large number of virtual college fairs and high school visits with very mixed results, depending on the region. We have been leaning even more heavily on our established relationships with independent educational consultants and feeder high schools around the world for general outreach, student connections, and updates on how the pandemic is affecting their local educational systems and schedules. Many students are also asking more savvy questions and earlier on in the process. This is likely the result of having more time for their “armchair research” than they would have had previously.”

—Jon Edwards, senior associate director of admissions and coordinator of international admissions at Grinnell College

I want your feedback. Email me your responses to what you read here and ideas for future coverage.

Around the Globe

Higher ed groups are calling on the U.S. Department of Education to prioritize and strengthen its international and foreign language education and research programs by restoring funding to Title VI and Fulbright-Hays programs.

A recent international graduate of the University of Chicago was killed in a robbery attempt near the campus, another reminder that concerns about gun violence and perceptions of the U.S. as unsafe influence international students’ decisions about whether to study here. 

A conservative student group at Emerson College was reprimanded for distributing stickers critical of China. The college conduct board found the group engaged in “discriminatory conduct on the basis of national origin.”

International students at prominent foreign campuses in China may be permitted to return soon. 

Economic, political, and public-health crises have battered Lebanon’s higher-education sector.

Some Sudanese universities have suspended classes following a military coup and ongoing instability.

A homemade bomb thrown into a lecture hall wounded 11 students in Cameroon.

Academics at a university in the Philippines are accusing higher-ed officials of sanctioning book purging.

College students in Hong Kong have begun taking compulsory classes on Beijing’s National Security Law.

Students at China’s Nanjing University are protesting administrators’ handling of a sexual-harassment case.

Japan’s new prime minister has pledged to establish an $88 billion university fund to promote Japan as a science and technology power.

And finally…

Coming up next week, I’ll have reporting from a global leadership forum organized by CANIE: Climate Action Network for International Educators. In the meantime, I want to hear about how your campus is adapting its international-education strategy and practices to respond to the climate crisis. Do you have ideas for the field about incorporating sustainable practices into global mobility? Email me by noon ET this Friday to have your thoughts included in a special climate-focused edition of latitude(s).

’Til next week —Karin

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