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Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF
24th Mar 2021

International student enrolment in the US fell by nearly 18% in 2020

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
  • The latest data from the US government reveals that foreign enrolment declined by 17.9% in 2020 compared with 2019
  • New international enrolments fell by 72%
  • The pandemic’s impact on enrolment really took hold in August of 2020, when the number of new F-1 visa-holders fell by 91% and M-1 visa-holders by 72%

A new report from the US Customs and Immigration Student and Exchange Visitor Program paints a clear picture of the impact of COVID on international enrolment in the US.

Not surprisingly, given that almost all of 2020 was spent in the grip of a pandemic, the picture is one of greatly decreased enrolments last year, with 17.9% fewer students holding M-1 and F-1 student visas. M-1 visas are for students in vocational studies while F-1s are for those in all other programme areas. In total, SEVP’s Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) held 1.25 million records for students on both F-1 and M-1 visas in 2020.

That steep decline during the pandemic year follows a few years of softening foreign enrolment in the US. 2019 had also seen a decline in foreign student numbers, but a far more marginal one of only 1.7%.

All schools in the US that are allowed to accept international students have been SEVP-certified, and all visa-holding students must be registered in SEVP’s web-based records-holding system (SEVIS), so SEVP data represent a highly accurate count of international students with US study visas.

SEVIS-registered students are enrolled in primary and secondary schools, higher education, and practical training programmes related to their degrees. The vast majority (86%) are enrolled in higher education programmes at the associate, bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral levels.

Sharpest declines in August and September

A dramatic drop in international commencements was the most significant factor affecting overall enrolment in the US last year. There were 72% fewer new international students in schools in 2020 as a result of drastic decreases in new enrolments in August and September.

In August alone, new international students on F-1 visas fell by 91% and those on M-1 visas fell by 72%. The effect of COVID is very apparent in the August/September intake since the pre-pandemic January 2020 intake had been comparable to enrolment levels from January 2019.

Beyond those top-level numbers, notable decreases happened in specific sectors of US education:

  • Schools enrolling younger international students (K-12) saw enrolments fall by a quarter (24.6%). Of note here is that China accounts for 44% of all international students in US K-12 schools.
  • Optional Practical Training (OPT) enrolments fell by 12% (compared with a decline of 4% in 2019).
  • The number of international students enrolled in associate degree programmes fell by 19.9%, in bachelor’s degrees by 13%, in master’s degrees by 16%, and in doctoral programmes by 4%. Together, bachelor’s and master’s degree programmes enrol 76% of all degree-seeking international students in the US, while doctoral programmes account for 16%.

Decreases across all sending regions

Not surprisingly, the declines reported for 2020 were distributed across all global sending regions.

Year-over-year enrolment decline by sending region, 2019 compared to 2020. Source: ICE

And enrolment declines were reported for all leading sending markets as well, including:

  • Nigeria, the most important African market, sent 10.9% fewer students than in 2019 for a total of 17,237 students in 2020.
  • The top two sending countries for US institutions, China and India, sent 91,936 (-19.4%) and 41,761 (-16.8%) fewer students in 2020, respectively. In 2019, the declines from these countries were a relatively modest -4,230 and -2,070 respectively.
  • Other key Asian markets also sent fewer students, including South Korea sending 18.9% fewer students and Japan sending 10,897 fewer students (-29.3%). Asian students continue to make up the lion’s share of international students in the US: 74% of the total.
  • Saudi Arabia, the fourth largest sender of students, sent 15,244 fewer students (-28.6%).
  • European countries sent 20.8% fewer students in 2020, and the two most significant markets from this region, Germany and France, fell by 28.5% and 24.1%, respectively.

The top ten sending countries for the US for 2020 are summarised in the table below.

Top sending markets for US education, 2020. Source: ICE

For additional background, please see:

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