Lower enrollment among international students last fall will hamper college tuition revenue for several years, according to Moody's Investors Service.
The number of foreign students studying at U.S. colleges dropped by 16% last fall, according to one survey, as the coronavirus pandemic complicated travel and the Trump administration further tightened visa policies.
International enrollment is poised to rebound in fall 2021, but continued travel restrictions, competition from other countries and the legacy of the Trump administration's hardline immigration policies will likely slow the recovery, analysts wrote.
Some signs point to improving international student enrollment. Foreign students' applications to U.S. institutions for fall 2021 were up 13% as of February 15 compared to the prior year, according to recent data from the Common App, which around 900 institutions use.
However, it's difficult to know whether application numbers will accurately predict enrollment, the Moody's analysts wrote. So far, applications have been uneven, with selective institutions seeing far more interest from international students than other colleges, according to Common App data.
Private institutions of all sizes that admitted fewer than half their applicants saw between 22% and 24% increases in applications from international students. Meanwhile, less-selective large private institutions saw declines of 10%, while less-selective large public schools saw a 2% dip, Common App found.
These trends are likely to have an outsized impact on a small sliver of institutions. Just 20 colleges account for more than 20% of international students in the U.S., according to data from the Institute of International Education.
Still, international students make up a substantial share of enrollment at some smaller colleges.
Liberal arts colleges, in particular, tend to recruit them to create a more global experience on campus. But colleges with lower profiles might see their foreign student body shrink more than better-known schools, the analysts wrote.
The U.S. is also up against greater competition for these students from colleges abroad, analysts wrote. In Australia, where Moody's noted international students make up 28% of all enrollment, universities are hoping to cater to them with more welcoming policies, though the pandemic is complicating those plans.
The American Council on Education recently called for a more coordinated effort to recruit international students and improve their experiences. That could include offering class times during the pandemic that reflect those students' time zones and ensuring they can access campus services.
Schools can also work with their international alumni to help support current foreign students, an ACE official recommended.