Coronavirus: fall in student traffic to US may be sharp but short

Imminent deadlines could hinder international student arrivals for coming academic year, say experts

March 20, 2020
Global citizens
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US universities already struggling with the prospect of declining international student enrolments are hopeful of relatively limited long-term damage resulting from the coronavirus shutdowns.

The outbreak follows three consecutive years of declines in new international student enrolments at US colleges and universities. The halting of almost all public gatherings is adding major short-term stress for foreign students and the institutions that rely on their revenue.

But for the most part, said Dick Startz, a professor of economics and expert in international student enrolment at the University of California, Santa Barbara, the damage should be temporary.

Most institutions should be able to maintain their enrolments for the rest of this academic year through online options, Professor Startz said. And in the long term, he added, international student interest in US higher education should persist even if it continues its slide under the current administration.

Such confidence is shared by New York University, which leads all US institutions with nearly 20,000 students from abroad. An NYU spokesman has said that his institution expects business as usual by this autumn.

Looking towards the 2020-21 academic year, however, Professor Startz sounded a note of caution for many other universities. The typical admission reply dates are 15 April for graduate school and 1 May for undergraduate acceptance. With the pandemic causing such disruption, it will be all but impossible for international students to know by those dates if they will be allowed to enter the US for the autumn semester, Professor Startz said.

“Next year could well be screwed up, even if the pandemic is under control by some time in the summer, because people have to plan ahead,” he said. “We are at some risk, then, of a big financial hit for one year.”

That makes it more crucial for US institutions, in lobbying for their share of a trillion-dollar coronavirus-related economic stimulus plan under debate in Congress, to make clear the possibility of heavy losses resulting from absent international students, Professor Startz said.

But for now, he continued, his own University of California system is devoting all its attention to protecting the health of its campuses and surrounding communities before worrying about the consequent economic toll.

US sector leaders are also busy helping their existing international students either return home or find accommodation in the US, said Rachel Banks, the senior director for public policy and legislative strategy at NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

“Educators are working day and night to ensure that students and scholars remain safe and to make sure that students have continued access to education,” she said.

Those efforts have been greatly helped, some US college officials have said, by federal officials making clear their more relaxed approach to student visa rules in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

NAFSA had been due to hold its annual advocacy day in Washington DC this month, with plans to issue a report tallying the value of international students. Along with the estimated $2.5 billion (£2.2 billion) in tuition fees and other charges they pay to US universities, students who come to US campuses from abroad drive some $41 billion in overall economic activity, the NAFSA report says. The report also cites data showing that nearly a quarter of the founders of billion-dollar US start-up companies first entered the country as students.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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