International students returning to the United States, but below pre-COVID levels


FILE – Prospective students visit the Indiana University campus on October 14, 2021 in Bloomington, Indiana. 15, by the Institute of International Education. But that follows a 15% drop last year, the biggest drop since the institute started publishing data in 1948. (AP Photo / Darron Cummings, File)


International students are returning to U.S. colleges in greater numbers this year, but the rebound has yet to offset historic declines from last year as COVID-19 continues to disrupt academic exchanges, according to a new survey.

Nationally, U.S. colleges and universities saw a 4% annual increase in international student numbers this fall, according to the results of a survey released Monday by the Institute of International Education. But that follows a 15% drop last year – the biggest drop since the institute started publishing data in 1948.

The recovery is better than many colleges predicted over the summer as the delta variant surged. But it also reflects persistent obstacles as visa backlogs persist and some students are reluctant to study abroad during the pandemic.

Universities and U.S. officials are hoping this year’s hike will mark the start of a long-term rebound. As international travel intensifies, there is optimism that colleges will see growth beyond their pre-pandemic levels.

“We expect an increase after the pandemic,” Matthew Lussenhop, acting US Assistant Secretary of State, told reporters. This year’s increase indicates that international students “continue to enjoy an American education and remain committed to further study in the United States,” he added.

Overall, 70% of U.S. colleges reported an increase in international student numbers this fall, while 20% saw declines and 10% remained stable, according to the institute. It’s based on a preliminary survey of over 800 American schools.

At least part of the increase is due to new students who hoped to come to the United States last year but have delayed their plans due to the pandemic. In total, there has been a 68% increase in the number of newly enrolled international students this year, a dramatic increase from the 46% drop last year.

For many schools, even a modest recovery is a relief. Over the summer, U.S. university officials feared the delta variant would shatter any hope of a rebound. But for many, this did not happen.

In August, U.S. embassies and consulates in India reported that they had issued visas to a record 55,000 students, even after starting the process two months late due to COVID-19.

Among those was Kedar Basatwar, who this fall enrolled in a graduate program in business analysis at Northeastern University in Boston, one of the country’s most popular destinations for international students. The 24-year-old from Pune, India, refused to apply to US schools during the height of the pandemic because he wanted to make sure he could attend classes in person.

“My plan has always been to come to the United States because the opportunities after obtaining a master’s degree are so much greater,” said Basatwar. “Additionally, obtaining a US visa is one of the greatest achievements that we consider in India.”

At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, officials are seeing “a return to normalcy for our international populations,” said Andy Borst, director of undergraduate admissions. The university enrolled more than 10,000 international students this fall, almost offsetting a 28% drop from last year.

“We just had this pent-up demand,” Borst said. “A lot of Big Ten schools have seen increases beyond what we expected.”

At some schools with big brands overseas, enrollment has rebounded beyond 2019 numbers.

At the University of Rochester in New York, overseas enrollments rose 70% from 2019 levels, driven by a boom in graduate students, according to data from the school.

The vast majority of US colleges have reverted to in-person learning by this fall, but not all international students are physically on campus. After the switch to distance learning last year, many schools continued to offer online courses to students abroad.

Of all international students enrolled in U.S. colleges this year, the survey found that about 65% were taking classes on campus.

Fangzhou Gu, a 21-year-old senior from Beijing, is among those who chose not to return to New York University’s Greenwich Village campus for her final semester this fall before graduating in December.

Instead, she is taking classes at the university outpost in Shanghai, an option offered throughout the pandemic by NYU, which has seen international enrollments increase 14% from 2019.

Gu said her remaining course load doesn’t require her to be in New York City, and her parents fear she might venture too far from home.

“The class and the classmates are closer, which really gives me a sense of community that I have dreamed of,” she said. “Plus, living expenses are less of a burden here. “

For some colleges, the new flexibility of online learning has prevented further enrollment declines. In the past, students at the University of San Francisco could start the term a week late if they had visa or travel issues. Now, people facing visa delays can arrive mid-term or later, and while waiting to study online from abroad.

This was the case with Vinh Le, who was unable to make it to Ho Chi Minh City airport in Vietnam in time for the start of fall classes. Instead, the graduate student studied online for over two months until he could get his first shot, which allowed him to travel. He arrived at the University of San Francisco on November 1.

International students are considered important contributors to US campuses for a variety of reasons. Colleges say they help provide a diverse mix of cultures and perspectives on campus. Many end up working in high-demand fields after graduation. And some colleges rely on the financial benefits of international students, who typically pay higher tuition fees.

While many colleges have avoided a second year of decline, there are still concerns that the recovery will be limited to certain types of colleges. The survey found that last year, community colleges suffered much larger declines than four-year universities, with a 24% decline nationally.

Researchers are still analyzing this year’s data, but some fear community colleges continue to lag.

Questions also arise as to the continuation of the rebound. New vaccine requirements for overseas travelers could make it harder for some students to get here, and colleges expect continued competition from colleges in Australia, Canada and other seeking countries. to increase international populations.

Yet officials at many colleges are optimistic. More vaccines are being sent overseas, and the recently lifted travel bans promise to lower travel barriers.

Some also credit President Joe Biden for sending a message that America wants overseas students. In July, the administration issued a statement pledging a “renewed” commitment to international education, saying it would work to make international students feel welcome.

For Paola Giammattei, a 21-year-old junior who studies at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, the concern is no longer so much about her classes, but whether companies will always be willing to hire foreign graduates on short-term visas. given the current job market.

Meanwhile, the chemical engineering major has embraced the return of campus life after taking distance education at her home in El Salvador at the start of the pandemic.

“Being in a classroom, being able to interact with other peers and teachers is great,” Giammattei said. “It’s easier to differentiate yourself and have a good work-life balance when everything is in person and you have different interactions in different contexts, not through a screen. “

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