Outlook is cloudy for international students, study abroad

90% of schools surveyed say international enrollment will drop, with 30% expecting a substantial decline.
By: | May 14, 2020
Many U.S. colleges and universities expect that international students may be restricted from traveling to campus in the fall, though many international student remained in the country when campuses closed in the spring.Many U.S. colleges and universities expect that international students may be restricted from traveling to campus in the fall, though many international student remained in the country when campuses closed in the spring.

Nearly all colleges and universities are expecting declines in international student enrollment in the fall, while coronavirus travel restrictions keep study abroad programs for U.S. students dormant.

Nearly 90% of the 599 schools surveyed by the Institute of International Education (IIE) expect international student enrollment to drop, with 30% anticipating a substantial decline.

And 70% expect that some of their international students won’t be able to travel to the U.S., Mirka Martel, IIE’s head of research, evaluation and learning, said in a webinar Wednesday.

With most institutional travel restricted, many of those colleges and universities (84%) have made international recruiting adjustments.

Schools have shifted international recruiting events, testing and other outreach programs online, and have also waived certain fees and transcript requirements, she said.

With most instruction being delivered virtually, school leaders will look to develop new approaches and best practices for virtual instruction of international students, Martel said.

“They have made extensive efforts to support international students,” Martel said.

Summer support for international students

The colleges and universities in the survey—conducted from April 16 to May 15—enrolled 519,456 (47%) of the international students in the U.S. in 2018-19.


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When campuses closed this spring, more than 90% of the international students studying on U.S. campuses remained in the country, the survey found.

Some were allowed to remain in residence halls while others found alternative housing, Martel said.

International students at smaller institutions (less than 5,000 students) were more likely to leave the U.S. than were international students at larger schools (more than 20,000 students).

“Institutions are working closely with international students in the U.S. to understand their situations and their needs better as the semester closes,” Martel says. “Most have indicated they will work with students who cannot return home due to travel restrictions and will keep housing and food options open through summer.”

The most recent survey comes on the heels of a November IIE report that found the 2018-19 academic year saw lowest growth rate for international enrollment in more than a decade.

Study abroad faces many hurdles

Nearly all U.S. study abroad programs (93%) were canceled when the pandemic hit this spring.


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With the potential for travel restrictions to remain in place, nearly three-quarters of the schools surveyed haven’t decided whether study abroad programs will resume in the fall.

And 85% of the institutions expect student interest in study abroad to decline in the 2020-21 school year.

“Study abroad will likely resume when restrictions are lifted,” Martel said. “The impacts on study aboard programs may be exacerbated by U.S. campus’ ability  to support study abroad and students’ ability to afford the program.”