The latest figures on international enrollment are bleak. Fifteen percent fewer foreign students attended U.S. higher education institutions in 2020-21 than the year before, according to the annual Open Doors report, compiled by the Institute of International Education and the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
Those declines likely dealt a bruising blow to the colleges that rely on these students to add cultural diversity to their campuses and bring in a key source of tuition revenue.
The same day the data was released, seven prominent higher ed associations called on the U.S. government to partner with the sector to develop a national plan to help restore international enrollment to numbers seen before the coronavirus pandemic.
"The higher education community is deeply committed to, and places a high priority on, increasing the overall access, diversity, and success of the students it serves," they said in a statement. "International students play an important role in these efforts by enriching the learning environment for all students and bringing a global perspective that adds to the diversity of the campus and community."
Here, we look at the numbers in greater detail to understand the trends playing out in international enrollment.
International student enrollment dropped 15%
The enrollment drop recorded in 2020-21 is the largest single-year decrease since IIE began tracking data in the late 1940s.
But it's unclear how many international students physically came to the U.S. for college last academic year, as IIE tracked both students studying within the country's borders and those enrolled online in a U.S. institution while they were physically located abroad — a change from past calculations.
"It's a bit ambiguous right now," said Jenny Lee, a higher education professor at the University of Arizona. "We're comparing apples to oranges, so I wonder if the decline is substantially worse than what is being reported."
New student enrollment drove the declines
New international student enrollment fell steeply in 2020-21, dropping by 45.6%. However, there are signs that point to a potential rebound.
An IIE survey of more than 860 schools found that their total new international enrollment increased 68% in the fall of 2021. Still, the effects of the 2020-21 decline will be felt for years, as future cohorts will likely be smaller in size.
"Nationally, I do expect that people will be pushing hard to capture more of those students, but there are only so many students that you sort of take and handle," said Ryan Allen, an education professor at Chapman University in Orange, California. "It's tough to sort of make up lost numbers one year to the next."
Master's and associate colleges saw the biggest enrollment declines
Although many institutions are reeling from the decline, experts said the effects weren't going to be felt evenly across higher ed. "Elite, top-ranking institutions in the U.S. and large flagships are going to be fine," Allen said. "They were always going to be fine."
Meanwhile, less-selective schools such as regional comprehensive universities and some liberal arts schools will be harder hit.
U.S. colleges saw steep enrollment declines from China and India
Foreign students from China, which accounts for one-third of international enrollment in the U.S., declined sharply, by 14.8%. But these declines may not be entirely attributable to the pandemic's travel restrictions.
"The racial climate, especially against those from China, is a big concern to look out for," Lee said.
Reports of anti-Asian hate have been on the rise. Stop AAPI Hate, which has been tracking incidents since the pandemic started, found this year's reports of incidents are on track to surpass last year's numbers. It reported that 4,533 anti-Asian hate incidents — which include slurs and physical attacks — have occurred through June this year, compared to 4,548 through all of last year.
There are also concerns about the China Initiative, which started under the Trump administration purportedly to stop economic and scientific espionage. And 42.2% of surveyed scientists of Chinese descent said they felt racially profiled by the federal government, compared to just 8.6% of scientists not of Chinese descent, according to a recent poll.
Intensive English saw largest international enrollment drop
College programs saw international enrollment declines across the board, but intensive English saw the largest drop, falling 60.8% from the year before.
"We know that a student can pursue English learning in many parts of the world that are more affordable and easier to travel," Lee said, adding that those places could include Australia, the United Kingdom and Canada.