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Is it still worth studying at a US university as an international student?

A student walks through the Diag on the University of Michigan campus amid reports of college football cancellation, during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Ann Arbor, Michigan, U.S., August 10, 2020. REUTERS/Emily Elconin
Reuters/Emily Elconin
US student debt stands at $1.7 trillion.
  • Ananya Bhattacharya
By Ananya Bhattacharya

Tech reporter

Published Last updated

The US has long benefitted from welcoming international students to its campuses. In exchange for receiving world-class education and often some work experience, students engage with American culture, contribute billions of dollars to the economy, and create strong connections with their US peers. When it works, the system can be a powerful form of soft diplomacy for the country.

But foreign students currently considering whether to study in the US face a cocktail of concerns, from racial intolerance, to uncertainty around visa and job prospects after graduation, to the country’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. In July, US Immigration and Customers Enforcement (ICE) rescinded student visas for international students taking their entire courses online as the pandemic was sweeping through the country. The decision was later revoked after top schools like MIT and Harvard sued the administration.

“The current administration’s agenda, however you wish to interpret it, has done lasting damage for its reputation to a generation of students who once looked at the US as the gold standard of education,” said Jihna Gavilanes, president of student services at UK-based education management firm Studee. “ICE sent a clear message to international students—you’re not welcome here.”

The Washington-based NAFSA Association of International Educators expects the decline in international student enrollment this year as a result of Covid-19 will cost institutions $3 billion, according to an April surveyAs they review the current landscape, international students may be asking themselves: Is studying in the US right now worth it?

🎓 Covid-19 in the US

Around 1 million students from around the world—led by students from China and India—poured onto US campuses last year to get a dose of American culture and education. The country has consistently ranked as the most popular destination for international students due to the quality of its teaching, cultural appeal, revered and historic universities, and job prospects after graduating, especially in the tech sector. Some international students who go there want to build a life abroad, because they believe the standard of living is higher in the west. Some are mid-career professionals, who want to give their career and salaries a boost.

The country benefits enormously from this exchange, says Rebecca Morgan, senior director of media relations and advocacy at NAFSA. “International students and scholars create jobs, drive innovation, enrich our classrooms, strengthen national security, and become America’s greatest foreign policy assets,” she said. “They also bring countless cultural and academic benefits to US campuses and communities.” (Not everyone is thrilled by the intense recruitment of international students to US campuses, raising concerns over who has been displaced as a result.)

But the pandemic has stolen away one of the central reasons students seek to study in the US: the in-person learning experience. Classes over video conferencing apps such as Zoom have several shortcomings, from managing time differences to dealing with shaky internet connections and even online censorship. Remote instruction in courses like drama or dance is cumbersome and ineffective, and students have been cut off from productions and festivals. Soft-skills courses such as leadership, which benefit from group work or case study discussion, suffer in an online environment.

Beyond campus, the compassionless decision-making by the Trump administration over visas has unnerved students, several lawyers who advise Indian students on their visa processes told Quartz. A crackdown on the H-1B visa, which provides work authorization for immigrants in specialized fields and is in such demand that it is run by lottery, has narrowed opportunities for immigration. And the US-China trade war has led to a rise in hate crimes against south Asians. Chinese students also face sinophobia fueled by the pandemic.

A July survey by the Student Experience in the Research University Consortium found that while many international students were satisfied with the support they received from US universities during the pandemic, they were extremely concerned about navigating the US healthcare and immigration systems and managing travel restrictions.  In addition, “fully 17% of international undergraduate students and 12% of graduate and professional students personally experienced instances of intimidating, hostile, or offensive behavior based on their national origin,” the survey found. “The effects bleed over into international students’ feelings of safety, their mental health, and their relationships with US peers or friends.”

Liu Xin, a student at Beijing Jiaotong University who plans to go to the UK for a master’s degree in 2021, cited the “current unfriendly political climate and the coronavirus situation in the US” as factors that make the country less attractive, Chinese daily Global Times reported.

🎓 Countries welcoming international students

Several other countries have positioned themselves as more welcoming of international students through their existing visa policies and handling of the pandemic.

Canada has emerged as a prime study abroad destination in recent years, largely because of its smooth immigration procedures. In 2018 it created a program for qualifying students from China, India, Vietnam, and the Philippines to fast-track their student visa applications. It is also easier for students in some respects to qualify to remain in the country after graduation than in the US. When the coronavirus pandemic hit Canada, the government instituted several temporary policy changes to allow international students to continue working and studying.

The UK has also become an attractive English-language destination for students. Last September, it reinstated a two-year work visa for international graduates, making it more appealing to study and gain work experience. In a June survey of over 6,600 students and their parents by Beijing-based consultancy New Oriental, a higher share of respondents said they were interested in UK higher institutions than US ones. Indeed by mid-August, British universities had accepted 8,570 Chinese students, an increase of 14% from last year.

During the pandemic, the UK government issued guidance to schools and local authorities to help international students remain housed. Students may be comforted by the fact that testing for Covid-19 is also free of charge in the UK in many cases.

Despite the language being a challenge for some, Germany has become increasingly popular for international students, as many of its undergraduate and graduate courses are free. The country also offers ample opportunity and funding for research. Between 2013 and 2018, the number of international students in Germany surged 33% to almost 375,000 students, data published by the German Academic Exchange Service show. This was no doubt helped by an increase in English-language master’s programs, from less than a hundred in 2007 to more than 1,200 last year. As part of its pandemic response, the country offered international students financial aid in the form of interest-free loans.

Australia’s appeal includes that it allows international students to work up to four years after completing their course. And many universities offered hefty fee waivers and monetary support for international students caught up in the pandemic.

🎓 The case for studying in the US

The US remains a top pick for Indian students pursuing STEM courses, according to Sumeet Jain, the co-founder of Yocket, a platform that helps Indian students with their study abroad applications. Students in those fields are guaranteed three years of work experience (versus one year for students in other industries), allowing them a few shots at the coveted H-1B visa lottery.

“Despite the noise around the visas, students with STEM backgrounds still find it much easier to find jobs in the US than, say, Canada,” says Jain. Silicon Valley bigwigs like Microsoft, Google, and Amazon continue to hire STEM graduates in big numbers, at handsome annual salaries of around $100,000, Jain added. That said, the tightened visa rules has prompted some US tech companies to expand their workforces up north.

Toronto is the only city around the world that has managed to claw its way to the top preferences among Indians looking to apply for the 2021 university year. The rest are all American, according to a survey by Yocket.

The Gurugram, India-based consultancy, found that the US’s loss has been Canada’s gain in terms of university applications in the last few years.

Certain students applying for the August 2021 school year are on watch-and-see mode, said Yocket’s Jain. They have long harbored dreams of studying in the US, but want to see how Covid-19 and the November elections pan out before locking in their decisions.

US universities trying to keep international students

As international students decide whether to defer this year’s enrollments or pick another country altogether in 2021, some US universities are coming up with ways to retain the international student population by meeting them where they are. After all, $45 billion in economic spending is at stake.

New York University in mid-July announced a “Go Local” program wherein its Shanghai campus will host 2,300-odd Chinese undergraduates and 800 graduate students who are unable to travel. Other institutions, like Pennsylvania State University, are partnering with Chinese universities to offer programs for students who can’t or don’t want to travel. And India’s new education policy, released in July this year, will let foreign universities set up in the country.

Local partnerships are not ideal for the US, which benefits from students spending their money, contributing to the labor force, and driving innovation. To lure them back to the US once the pandemic is over, colleges are beginning to take charge of the narrative.

The #YouAreWelcomeHere social media and scholarship campaign, which began last year as a way for US institutions to affirm that they are diverse, friendly, safe, and committed to student development, has gained traction in light of the pandemic. People are stepping up to share tales of culturally-rich student bodies, help on legal matters, and even provide financial breaks.


“Although the US has historically been the most popular study abroad destination, it shouldn’t be complacent,” says NAFSA’s Morgan. “It’s not the only choice for students who are looking to get a world-class education.”