Driven largely by the global pandemic, the number of international students enrolled at US colleges and universities fell by 15%—or 161,401 students—from 2019 to 2020. However, early data for 2021 indicate the number might bounce back soon. This is according to new data from the Institute of International Education and the US State Department.
As a university administrator who specializes in international higher education, I see six important takeaways to consider.
1. A record decrease
While a drop was expected due to the disruptions caused by the covid-19 global pandemic, which included international travel restrictions and suspension of US visa services, the number of international students in the US has actually been declining since 2016.
The decrease in 2020, however, is the largest on record based on data dating back to 1948.
Enrollments are down across all fields of study at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, which fell by 14.2% and 12.1%, respectively. Meanwhile, more than half of all international students come from just two countries: China and India. About 1 in 3 international students in the US are from China, and about 1 in 5 are from India. For context, the third-most represented nation is South Korea, which accounts for about 1 out of every 25 international students in the US.
2. A rebound is evident, but it may not last
While the overall number of international students dropped in fall 2020, a preliminary snapshot points to a 68% increase in the number of students beginning their studies in fall 2021 compared with a year earlier. This increase, which cannot be confirmed until a more comprehensive census is released in 2022, suggests a possible rebound is occurring.
Nonetheless, it is important to understand that the rebound reflected in these data undoubtedly includes some of the nearly 40,000 international students who were admitted for fall 2020 but had to defer their studies due to the pandemic.
Given that most admission offers may be deferred for only one year, it is reasonable to assume that fall 2020 deferrals helped fuel fall 2021 gains. So any increase in 2021 could be a temporary spike and not necessarily a sign that international student enrollments will reverse their downward trend.
3. Other nations’ losses may be the US’ gains
Another factor fueling the reported surge in new international enrollments within the US for fall 2021 is that the US experienced less competition from abroad.
In addition to a delayed vaccine rollout across countries in Europe, some nations have been entirely off-limits since the start of the pandemic. For instance, China and Australia, the world’s fourth- and fifth-most popular study destinations, respectively, have both remained closed to international students since the start of the pandemic, causing students who would otherwise have traveled to these countries to switch destinations in pursuit of in-person learning.
In August 2021, Australia reported more than 200,000 fewer international students than a year earlier, before the pandemic began. While Australia will allow international students to return starting on Dec. 1, 2021, it remains uncertain when China might reopen its borders to students.
4. Less funding for STEM graduate programs
Many US universities would find it difficult to maintain graduate programs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM, without international students. This is made clear by a 2021 report showing that international students constitute the majority of full-time graduate students in many STEM fields. For example, at the graduate level, international students are 82% of all petroleum engineering students, 74% of all electrical engineering students and 72% of all computer and information sciences students.
While some might think these figures mean US students are being crowded out, research reveals that international student enrollment actually helps increase US enrollment. Consider that international students pay higher tuition than their US classmates, which helps pay for enrolling more American students.
5. Fewer US jobs
Beyond usually paying a higher tuition, international students spend money off campus as well. In fact, they spend on just about everything that US students do, from apartments and transportation to insurance and technology. In much of the country, local and state sales taxes are paid on top of these purchases.
These dollars add up to the point that for every three international students, one US job is created or supported by their spending. The 2020 enrollment drop-off means 109,679, or 26.4%, fewer US jobs were supported by international students in 2020 than in 2019.
6. Fewer highly skilled workers
International students who work internships or get practical training also serve as a valuable pool of talent for US employers struggling to hire workers in highly skilled areas, such as science and engineering.
According to the US Chambers of Commerce, the shortage of highly skilled workers is a key factor holding back economic recovery from the effects of the pandemic. A healthy talent pool in the US also has implications for global competitiveness, as other nations, such as China and Russia, aim to increase their scientific and technological capabilities.
Economics aside, international students make many other valuable contributions to the US. These include increasing cultural diversity on college campuses, enhancing learning in the classroom and promoting positive diplomatic relations with other countries. While the US remains the world’s top choice for international students, it continues to lose ground to other nations vying to attract foreign talent.
Consider that from 2000 to 2020 the US share of the world’s international students fell from 28% to 20%. How could this be? Unlike the next four most popular destinations, the UK, Canada, China, and Australia, the US lacks a national strategy for recruiting and retaining international students.
Earlier in 2021, the Biden-Harris administration signaled that may be changing. Specifically, the US secretaries of education and state released a Joint Statement on Principles in Support of International Education. In that statement, they committed to a number of actions, such as implementing new policies and procedures aimed at ensuring the US remains the top destination for global talent.
More recently, several major US higher education associations called for a national strategy to reverse the international enrollment decline.
While it is still too early to predict if a unified strategy would actually reverse international student enrollment declines at US colleges and universities, the idea of a coordinated national approach could help position the US to compete for the world’s best and brightest minds.