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US: International enrolments fell sharply in 2020 but are now rebounding

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Just-released enrolment data show a 46% decline in new international student enrolments and a 15% overall decline in international enrolments in US higher education in the 2020/21 academic year
  • Continuing enrolments fell by only 3%, signalling that most international students remained committed to their US programmes even amid the disruptions of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021
  • Survey data for fall 2021, representing the responses of over 860 higher education institutions, foretell a much better time for US educators in 2021/22, with 68% reporting increases in international enrolments
  • 40% of those who reported increases in Fall 2021 reported “substantial increases”

At a press conference announcing the Institute of International Education’s (IIE) Open Doors data for the 2020/21 academic year, IIE and government officials emphasised the Biden administration’s strong support of efforts to rebuild international student enrolments in the US. While 2020/21 was marked by international student enrolment declines, IIE officials also released data from the 2021 Fall International Student Enrolment Snapshot survey that indicate that this support – along with fewer pandemic-related travel barriers – is contributing to a “surge” in new international enrolments that will carry into the 2021/22 academic year.

The annual IIE data are from a survey of more than 3,000 higher education institutions, while the 2021 Fall Snapshot survey represents data from over 860 institutions.

Measuring the fall 2020 decline

The number of new international students enrolled in US higher education institutions fell by nearly half (46%) in 2020/21, according to the Open Doors® 2021 Report. Overall, there was a decrease of 15% in international enrolments across various higher education sectors. A total of 914,095 international students were studying US higher education programmes in 2020/21, a significant drop from the 1,075,495 international students who were enrolled in 2019/20.

Continuing enrolments were much less affected, declining by a relatively modest 3%. This is a COVID-related trend common to most of the leading destinations. IIE has linked the trend to “international students [pausing or slowing] the pace of their academic study, thereby remaining enrolled for a longer period at their host institution … and institutions [providing] support for continuing international students who were already in the country.”

Of the overall declines, noted Mirka Martel, IIE’s head of research, evaluation and learning, the data reflect a period of time that included severe disruption:

“Throughout the 2020 spring and summer semesters, international student applications, selection, and visa processes were severely impacted by the pandemic. Further, international travel was also restricted. As a result, the Fall 2020 semester saw largely hybrid models in place, with approximately 20% of international students studying online from abroad.”

Given the massive changes to the higher education landscape created by the pandemic, the latest Open Doors report counted any international student studying in any way (i.e., in-person, online, in the US, or overseas) in its enrolment totals. Previously, international students were defined exclusively as student visa holders studying in-person on US campuses.

Dramatic turnaround in the US position

The press conference was studiously oriented to assuring media, education stakeholders in the US and abroad, and international students that the US government welcomes foreign students and encourages American students to study abroad as part of a commitment to global engagement and cooperation. The tone established in the conference was in sharp contrast to rhetoric and policies enacted by former President Trump that made it difficult for US higher educators to maintain international enrolments.

Smiling broadly, United States Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona told the conference,

“I encourage all Americans to consider pursuing opportunities abroad to study … I also believe that the incredible diversity of our nation’s students is one of America’s greatest strengths, and our country wholeheartedly welcomes international students, researchers, and scholars to our campuses to share their rich perspectives, cultures, and languages – as well as their creativity and innovation – to enrich our communities.”

Matthew Lussenhop, Acting Assistant Secretary of State, added,

“International students are central to the free flow of ideas, innovation, economic prosperity, and peaceful relations between nations. As reiterated in the recent Joint Statement of Principles in Support of International Education by the US Departments of State and Education, the United States is strongly committed to international education as we continue to build back better.”

Signs of a rebound

Several indicators point to the country’s renewed popularity among international students. Higher education institutions responding to the IIE’s 2021 Fall International Student Enrollment Snapshot survey (conducted jointly with nine higher education institutions) reported a 68% increase in international student commencements – a sea change from the 46% decline they reported in Fall 2020. The latest Snapshot survey found that the total number of international students (enrolled and OPT) increased by 4% compared with enrolments reported in Fall 2020.

Year-over-year changes in total foreign enrolment in the US. Source: IIE

As the following screen shot depicts, fully 40% of institutions responding to the Fall 2021 Snapshot survey reported “substantial” increases in enrolments.

Fall 2021 enrolment trends as reported by US higher education institutions. Source: IIE’s 2021 Fall International Student Enrollment Snapshot

Data in IDP Connect’s student-facing websites also found that last month, the US “surpassed Canada for international student demand share, indicating continuing competition between the two North American countries.” Canada has been the principal beneficiary of lower international student demand for the US over the past couple of years and remains popular among students looking for greater affordability and immigration opportunities (among other motivations).

Data highlights

Within the broad trend of depressed international enrolments in 2020/21, IIE data showed:

  • International students represented 5% of all students in US higher education and contributed $39 billion to the US economy in 2020.
  • Of total enrolments (representing students from over 200 countries), 359,790 were undergraduate (down by 14%), 329,270 were graduate (-12%), 21,150 were non-degree (-64% – due especially to a massive decline in Intensive English Programme enrolments), and 203,880 (-9%) were students pursuing the popular OPT work programme.
  • Top places of origin are China (317,300), India (167,580), and South Korea (39,490). Chinese enrolments fell by 15%, Indian enrolments by 13%, South Korean numbers by 21%, and Saudi Arabian numbers by 23%. The significant declines from South Korea and Saudi Arabia were primarily felt at the non-degree level.
  • Chinese and Indian students make up 53% of all international enrolments.
  • 54% of international students are in STEM fields, primarily in engineering (21%) and math and computer science (20%).
  • International enrolment declines were steepest at associate degree-granting colleges (-24%) and master’s universities (-23%) and less pronounced at doctoral universities (-13%) and undergraduate (bachelor’s) colleges (-14%).

2021/22 is looking much brighter

The 2021 Fall Snapshot survey found that 73% of international students enrolled with US higher education institutions are studying via a hybrid model, 27% are studying in-person only, and only 1% are studying exclusively online. Fully 65% of institutions reported that international students are attending on-campus classes.

The screen shot below shows how much has changed in the span of a year in terms of how international students are pursuing their US higher education. This is thanks in large part to the easing of border restrictions in many countries, including the US, which is turn largely thanks to COVID vaccine rollouts across the world.

Mode of delivery in US higher education, fall 2020 and fall 2021. Source: IIE’s 2021 Fall International Student Enrolment Snapshot

For additional background, please see:


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