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Open Doors: fall survey suggests new starts down 43%

As international education week kicks off in the US and annual Open Doors survey data is announced, a snapshot fall survey is indicating that new enrolments of international students in and outside the US are down by 43%.

The state of California attracted the most international students in 2019/20. Photo: iStock

For the fifth consecutive year, US institutions hosted more than one million international students in 2019/20

The sobering statistic is the conclusion of an IIE survey, conducted with partner institutions, based on data from over 700 higher education providers.

Despite implementing hybrid or online classes, the total size of the cohort of international students at US higher education institutions fell by 16% this autumn period, with the new start numbers freefalling by almost half.

This data includes students joining classes remotely from outside the country. One in five international students are studying online from abroad in fall 2020, the report noted.

While new international student enrolments fell 43% – which could equal some 115,000 fewer students nationwide – responding institutions indicated around 40,000 students have deferred enrolment to a future term.

Meanwhile, in the annual Open Doors data reflecting the 2019/20 academic year, new starts fell just 0.6%, with Marie Royce, assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs, lauding the fact that there are still over a million international students enrolled with US institutions (or in post-study OPT).  

“We are encouraged to see a fifth year of more than one million international students in the United States before the pandemic,” she said.

According to the US Department of Commerce, international students contributed $44 billion to the US economy in 2019.

In 2019/20, the 1,075,468 students from overseas was a decline of 1.8% on the previous year, as numbers returned to pre-2016/17 figures.

The 0.6% fall in new starts recorded in the previous academic year is significantly smaller than the 6.6% decline in 2017/18.

China remained the largest source of students 2019/20, but – despite the total number increasing for the sixteenth consecutive year – the 0.8% rise to host 372,532 Chinese students is a significantly smaller increase when compared to recent years.

Chinese figures increased as a result of more students joining graduate courses (+3%) and Optional Practical Training (+2%). Both non-degree and undergraduate Chinese students fell by -7.8% (1,339 students) and -0.5% (720 students), respectively.

In 2019/20, India represented the second largest source market with 193,124 students. This represented a yearly decline of 4%.

“We cannot afford to lose these talented individuals to a competitor country”

Emerging markets including Bangladesh (+7%), Brazil (+4%) and Nigeria (+3%) fared better with student numbers all increasing.

The figures also revealed that students hailing from Saudi Arabia saw the biggest drop with -17%, with the report suggesting this was “primarily due” to changes in the Saudi government’s scholarship program.

Within the top 10 states international students studied in during 2019/20, all but three saw falls in total international student cohorts.

New York (+2.1%), Massachusetts (+3.7) and Florida (+0.6) all recorded more international students in 2019/20, while the state hosting the most – California – witnessed a slight drop of -0.7% to 160,592.

NAFSA emphasised the drop in students during 2019/20 translated to loss of $1.8 billion from the previous academic year – the first time the dollar amount has dropped since the organisation began calculating international students’ contributions to the US economy more than 20 years ago.

“Unfortunately, this disappointing news is not surprising,” NAFSA executive director and CEO, Esther D. Brimmer said.

Travel bans, executive orders, detrimental regulatory actions and xenophobic rhetoric from the highest levels of US government over the past four years have all contributed to fewer students opting for the US as a study destination, she suggested.

“The lack of a coordinated national pandemic response made the situation even more difficult,” Brimmer continued.

NAFSA estimates that the dollar impact of Covid-19 on the economic contributions of international students at $1.17 billion.

“As the economic value decreases, we are reminded of the immense contributions that international students bring to America,” Brimmer noted.

“We cannot afford to lose these talented individuals to a competitor country. Our policymakers and legislative leaders must reaffirm America’s commitment to international students and scholars because our universities and colleges have never stopped doing so, and neither have our competitor countries.”

Director of the Office of Global Educational Programs at the US Department of State, Anthony Koliha, explained that the Trump administration had “invested more in educational advising for the State Department Education USA network [including 430 educational advising centres] than any administration in history” in the past year.

“These investments will help maintain and grow the US as the top host nation for international students,” he said.

“We are expanding our outreach to the US higher education community here at home and to foreign governments, high school counsellors and prospective students and their parents abroad, including through our global marketing campaign that we have just piloted in three countries overseas and will expand in 2021.”

In response to the health pandemic, the US higher education sector “has risen to the challenge”, he added, noting that institutions had been “providing incredible support to international students in the US and abroad while shifting to various in person, hybrid and online teaching models”.

The snapshot survey found 74% of responding institutions reported increasing virtual recruitment through online recruitment events and 54% increased asynchronous or synchronous virtual campus visits. A further 64% of institutions have committed funding for outreach and recruitment of international students at the same level or higher than previously.

“US Colleges and universities are also upping their outreach game, keeping their eyes on the horizon,” Koliha noted.

More institutions are expanding their outreach in more regions, especially by leveraging the Education USA Network,” Mirka Martel, IIE’s head of Research, Evaluation & Learning agreed.

“When it’s safe to resume travel, we’re dealing with surges of students that have deferred”

While the US has “never had a decrease like” the 43% fall in new enrolments this year, IIE remains optimistic going forward.

“What we do know is when pandemics end, there’s tremendous pent up demand and all of our records show in the past thatwhen it’s safe to resume travel, we’re dealing with surges of students that have deferred and set their plans aside for granted deferments and want to come,” president of the IIE, Allan Goodman, noted.

“So I think there’s no reason to suspect that at the end of this pandemic, we won’t see the same thing. And that’ll be the biggest challenge US colleges and universities will have, because we will have more students from abroad than ever before wanting to come here.”

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