6 Ways A Drop In International Students Could Set Back US Higher Education

Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange (CBYX) Participants visit the U.S. Diplomacy Center at the U.S. Department of State. (State Department photo)

Fewer students from abroad expected to study in the U.S. 

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, fewer and fewer international students were coming to study in the United States.

While the number of international students who newly enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities during the 2015-2016 school year stood at more than 300,000, by the 2018-2019 school year, that number had fallen by about 10% to less than 270,000.

This trend will undoubtedly accelerate in the fall of 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. The American Council on Education predicts that overall international enrollment for the next academic year will decline by as much as 25%. That means there could be 220,000 fewer international students in the U.S. than the approximately 870,000 there are now.

One reason is that the U.S. has more COVID-19 cases than any other country. Other reasons include disapproval among international students regarding the U.S. response to COVID-19 compared to other nations, the ongoing suspension of the processing of U.S. visas and negative perceptions of the Trump administration’s immigration policies and rhetoric.

As an international education professional, I foresee six major ways that the expected steep decline in international enrollment will change U.S. higher education and the economy.

1. Higher tuition

International students often pay full tuition, which averages more than US$26,000 per year at public four-year institutions and $36,000 at private nonprofit four-year institutions. That matters because the tuition from foreign students provides extra funds to subsidize the costs of enrolling more students from the U.S. At public colleges and universities, the revenue generated from international enrollment also helps to make up for cuts in state funding for higher education.

One study found that for every 10% drop in state funding for higher education, international enrollment increased by 12-17% at public research universities from 1996 to 2012.

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