Open Doors: US international student recruitment up by two-thirds

After extended run of pandemic and political obstacles, Biden officials celebrate revival even as totals still lag pre-Covid highs

November 15, 2021
US-Mexico border
Source: iStock

New international student enrolment at US universities jumped by 68 per cent this autumn semester, after a 46 per cent pandemic-driven decline last year, according to an annual government-backed survey.

The rebound among new students drove total overseas student enrolment in the US up by 4 per cent this autumn, after a 15 per cent drop last academic year, according to the figures from the Institute of International Education (IIE) working with the US Department of State.

In issuing the annual data after a year of Covid-imposed shutdowns across higher education and the wider society, Biden administration officials celebrated the recovery and called it a testament to their determination to clear hurdles and make international students feel welcome.

“The doors are open for them,” said Ethan Rosenzweig, the deputy assistant US secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs.

The numbers mark reversals not just in the course of the pandemic, but in the change of presidential administrations in Washington. Trump administration officials often spoke in disparaging terms of foreigners, pushed international students to leave the US if their classes were not held in person, and arrested foreign-born scientists over clerical errors in paperwork describing their global academic partnerships.

Mr Rosenzweig took a different tack, saying research security concerns should be “a factor for a very small number of students”. He put particular emphasis on encouraging students from China, which is the biggest single supplier of international students in US universities, and was also the main Trump administration target in its campaign to fight what it saw as rampant theft from US campuses of scientific research secrets.

On balance, Mr Rosenzweig told a briefing to announce the enrolment data, global academic exchange “is central to diplomacy, innovation, economic prosperity and national security.

“So whether a student is from Guangzhou, Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu – they’re welcome here, along with everyone else in the Chinese community that wants to study here.”

The improvement in overseas enrolment also is considered critical for US universities, as students from abroad provide institutions with diversity in thinking and culture as well as disproportionately higher levels of per-student revenue. Leaders include New York, Northeastern and Columbia universities, with more than 15,000 international students apiece, the IIE reported.

After shutting down most visa processing worldwide in March 2020, State Department officials said they have been putting a priority on helping students as their consular operations resumed, which meant that visas were not posing a hurdle for educational exchanges this year. “We really have been able to continue to meet that demand,” said Rebecca Wall, a consular affairs officer.

US universities made their own significant efforts to help, said Mirka Martel, head of research, evaluation and learning at the IIE. While the US does not recognise the effectiveness of some foreign-manufactured Covid vaccines, nearly three-quarters of US institutions surveyed this autumn are offering testing and vaccines to everyone on campus, including overseas students, Dr Martel said.

The IIE report comprises detailed enrolment data for the 2020-21 autumn semester at about 3,000 US institutions and also a smaller survey of 860 US institutions covering the current semester. The latest findings – this year showing the 68 per cent increase in overseas students – typically prove to be an accurate estimate of the IIE’s subsequent compilation of the comprehensive data.

Because of the pandemic, the IIE changed its definition of international students in its new report to include both those physically present on campus in the US and those students in the US or abroad who are taking courses remotely from a US institution. About 47 per cent of overseas students took classes in person at some point during the autumn 2020 semester, and about 65 per cent were on campus this semester, the IIE said. About 99 per cent of US institutions have been holding in-person classes this semester, it said.

Less clear, the IIE acknowledged, was how much of the rebound in overseas student enrolment reflected students who normally would have been starting classes this autumn, versus those who postponed their plans during the pandemic. One indicator, Dr Martel said, was the IIE’s findings last year that more than 40,000 foreign students had deferred their academic work to a future semester.

In raw numbers, the IIE counted 914,095 international students enrolled at US institutions in the 2020-21 academic year, out of a total nationwide US student enrolment of 19.7 million. China supplied the most (317,299), followed by India (167,582).

Even with the 4 per cent rise above those levels this autumn, as estimated by the IIE survey, the total enrolment of international students at US colleges and universities still would be about 13 per cent behind the peak years of nearly 1.1 million as recently as 2018-19.

The IIE’s chief executive, Allan Goodman, said he now expected that international student enrolment in the US “will increase and ramp up very rapidly in the years ahead”, despite other analyses suggesting that the downturn is more fundamental and enduring as other countries grow more attractive.

The US also continues to see a decline in international students remaining in the US to work. That opportunity, known as Optional Practical Training, appears from the survey data to have fallen in popularity by 10 per cent this academic year. That drop appears to be a result of both the pandemic and US government policy shifts that reduced eligibility, the IIE said.

The comprehensive figures for 2020-21 also showed a 64 per cent drop in the number of international students coming to the US for non-degree work, typically English-language instruction programmes, which were especially hard hit by pandemic restrictions, the IIE reported.

The IIE, a non-profit promoter of international academic exchange, also tracks US students studying abroad. There, the effect was felt early in the pandemic, the IIE reported, with the total number of US students studying abroad for academic credit dropping 53 per cent to 162,633 students in the 2019-20 year.

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