Here’s the size of COVID’s impact on international students

Enrollment of new international students plummeted by 43% this fall; STEM remains most popular field
By: | November 16, 2020
While one in five international students are taking courses online this fall, some 40,000 postponed their studies, according to the 2020 Open Doors report. (GettyImages/Frank Lee)While one in five international students are taking courses online this fall, some 40,000 postponed their studies, according to the 2020 Open Doors report. (GettyImages/Frank Lee)

Not surprisingly, travel restrictions and other impacts of COVID reduced international student enrollment in U.S. colleges and universities by 16% in the fall 2020 semester.

Enrollment of new international students fell even further, plummeting by 43% this fall at 700 institutions surveyed, according to the Institute of International Education.

While one in five international students are taking courses online this fall, some 40,000 postponed their studies. Nine out of 10 colleges and universities surveyed reported these deferments, the report found.

Many institutions invited international students to participate in virtual networking events and adapting course schedules and teaching methods to accommodate international students.


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A smaller amount, about 30%, provided emergency funding for international students, the report found.

On the recruitment side, 82% of the institutions surveyed increased virtual international recruitment with online events. About half the schools held synchronous or asynchronous virtual campus visits.

Study abroad numbers

The Open Doors report also noted that the number of U.S. students studying abroad grew 1.6% (347,099 students) in 2018-19, the most recent year of which data was available.

Finally, 56% of institutions surveyed reported recruiting international students at U.S. high schools. Approximately half are focusing their recruitment efforts on China, Vietnam, and India.

Slight enrollment decline in 2019-20

Though the U.S. hosted more than one million international students for the fifth year in a row in the 2019-2020 school year, overall enrollment dipped by 1.8%, according to the 2020 Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange.

China and India remained the top sources of international students in U.S. China sent 372,000 students while 193,124 came from India.

Among the top 20 sending countries, the largest percentage increases came from Bangladesh (+7%), Brazil (+4%) and Nigeria (+3%).


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Saudi Arabia saw the largest decrease (-17%), primarily due to changes in a government scholarship program, the report notes.

STEM remained the most popular field of study, with more than half of international students pursuing degrees in engineering, math and computer science, physical and life sciences, health professions, and agriculture.

Among those subjects, engineering was the top field, with math and computer science second.


UB’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on higher ed.