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Survey shows US colleges anticipate a strong recovery in international enrolment

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • The latest IIE COVID-19 Snapshot Survey shows that the vast majority of US colleges and universities plan to offer international students in-person instruction this fall
  • Most expect a hybrid combination of in-person and online programme delivery models
  • Educators also have contingency plans to support students who can’t make it due to COVID challenges or travel restrictions
  • More than three-quarters say their recruitment budgets are higher than pre-COVID
  • Many say they will continue to offer more flexibility to international students after the pandemic, including allowing more online documentation and waiving standardised testing for other credentials
  • Doctoral programmes especially are reporting more applications for the 2021/22 academic year

US universities and colleges are anticipating that international students will return, in-person, to campuses this fall. Fully 86% of surveyed institutions expect to offer students in-person study, and none expect to deliver online-only instruction. If all goes to plan, this would be a marked change from last spring, when only 52% of international students were able to access at least some in-person instruction on US campuses.

This news comes out of the Institute of International Education’s (IIE) fourth survey in its COVID-19 Snapshot Survey Series, which collected data from 414 higher education institutions from 15 April to 5 May 2021. In the introduction for its latest survey report, the IIE says, “We release this report … with a cautiously optimistic outlook on international educational exchange.”

Mirka Martel, IIE’s Head of Research, Evaluation and Learning, adds:

“Universities are prepping for a strong recovery in international education enrolment as they emerge from the pandemic. We anticipate the recovery to come in phases, tied to vaccinations and travel guidelines. But there is definitely a concerted effort by US higher education institutions to reopen their campuses and encourage all students, including international students, to return to in-person study.”

Reflecting the intensity of that effort, more than three-quarters (77%) of institutions said their recruitment budgets are at least as high, or higher, than before COVID.

The report acknowledges that significant challenges remain to recruitment, which may or may not ease in time for fall 2021:

“Variable vaccination rates worldwide and the recent outbreaks in India, Latin America, and other locations remind us that institutions will continue to grapple with COVID-19 in promoting a return to in-person study for international students from those regions.”

Hybrid delivery model is the most likely option

Looking ahead to fall 2021, most (62%) educators believe that students will learn through a hybrid model, though a significant 24% said they are planning for in-person-only instruction.

Source: IIE

Plans are one thing, but educators are also aware that contingency measures are needed should COVID challenges prevent some students from coming to the US. More than three-quarters would offer deferment to spring 2022 and close to half would offer online options.

What will your institution offer to international students enrolled in fall 2021? Source: IIE

Applications are up, but not across the board

More than four in ten (43%) institutions reported an increase in their international student applications for the 2021/22 academic year, another promising sign for the recovery of the sector. This proportion is nearly double what it was when institutions were surveyed a year ago, but there are variations across sub-sectors: “Many doctoral universities noted application increases (59%), while a majority of community colleges reported declines (58%).”

Proof of vaccination will not be required at many institutions

While 64% of US educators said they plan to offer vaccines on campus this fall, only 14% currently have a requirement that students be vaccinated in order to be on campus. Nearly half (45%) said they do not intend to make vaccination mandatory for attendance, and 55% said they are still thinking about what to do.

Vaccinations aside, the vast majority of colleges and universities will have robust safety measures in place to protect student and staff this fall: fully 89% will require face masks for all on campus, for example, and 71% will offer COVID testing for all on campus.

COVID safety protocols reported by US colleges for fall 2021. Source: IIE

Increased supports for international students

The following chart shows that US educators increased their efforts to help international students over the course of a year, especially with regards to flexibility regarding visa applications and providing virtual events.

Comparing institutional supports for international students for spring 2020 and spring 2021. Source: IIE

IIE also noted that because 92% of institutions delivered at least one course online to their international students, technical assistance and general flexibility (e.g., in light of different time zones) was key:

“Institutions prioritised providing advising services and academic support to these students, such as providing IT support, adjusting course schedules, or offering asynchronous options for international students.”

Some COVID admissions practices will endure post-pandemic

The IIE survey included a great section on lessons learned during the pandemic. Educators provided feedback on which adaptations made for international students they will likely keep in place after COVID recedes.

The most cited COVID-era adjustment that institutions will retain is allowing online submission of applications and immigration documents (see chart below). Otherwise:

  • More than half will allow online testing rather than in-person testing going forward;
  • Almost half said they are prepared to accept credentials other than standardised testing;
  • Four in ten are okay with extending application deadlines;
  • Three in ten would extend deadlines for students to accept offers of admission.
Aspects of flexibility in US college admissions processes for 2021. Source: IIE

For additional background, please see:


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