International Student Numbers Decline During COVID-19, How are Schools Impacted?

On November 16th, 2020, representatives from the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, and the Institute of International Education (IIE) released findings from the 2020 Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange. The Open Doors Annual Report on International Educational Exchange provides a wealth of information and data on international students studying in the United States each academic year. In its newest report, which tracks data about international students from July 2019 to June 2020, IIE provides a snapshot of the pandemic’s early impact on the industry. The findings show a decline that began in January 2020 and continuing through the spring of the 2020 term and into the early stages of summer.

Mirka Martel, IIE’s head of Research, Evaluation, and Learning, explained that, “We found for the most part that fall 2019 happened as planned, and that international scholars were able to travel to the United States”.

However, as the pandemic persisted, “Starting in January 2020, travel restrictions, whether issued by the U.S. or the scholars’ home countries, disabled scholars from traveling to the U.S. and caused this decrease.”

In total, the number of international scholars in the U.S. declined last year by 1.8% (13,055 students), the first decrease year over year in nearly two decades. A recent trend of regression in new international student enrollment also continued in 2019/20. Over the last four years, new international student enrollment has steadily declined from 290,836 students per year in 2016/17 to 267,712 students in 2019/20.

With regards to top countries that international scholars to the United States, many Asian countries such as India (-4.4%), South Korea (-4.7%), and Vietnam (-2.5%) saw sharp declines in the number of students they sent in the last year. Although, China, the top sender of international students to the U.S., saw a very modest increase in students at 0.8% in 2019/20. Overall, the influx of international students from top Asian countries has slowed compared to prior years.

It’s unclear how much the COVID-19 pandemic and related travel restrictions in the region have impacted international student interest in the U.S. As a response to global travel challenges, many international students elected to remain in the U.S. rather than return home after restrictions went into effect. As uncertainty around international travel continuing through 2021, many international students are faced with the same dilemma again this summer. For some students, extending their stay through the summer may be their best option. International students could have residential and academic accommodations provided, and schools can ensure that students will avoid complications with traveling and visas when the fall semester starts.

For international students and programs in need of summer residential or academic accommodations, Cambridge Network provides Summer Homestay Services allowing students to stay in the care of one of our carefully screened and verified host families until the start and through the next school year. International students can feel at ease in our CSIET certified homestay program with our dedicated hosts and experienced support staff.

Schools with international student programs must continue to establish their brand and promote to their audiences abroad to meet the challenges of the upcoming student recruitment season. From a marketing and communications perspective, international student programs should position themselves favorably in the market once interest in the international study is evitability renewed as we recover from COVID-19. International student programs should look to invest in new channels to draw in prospective students, such as leveraging online events, utilizing native social media platforms, and working with an international student recruiter to help with your admissions efforts. For those interested, Cambridge Network provides trusted international education consulting in recruitment, admissions, and residential life for schools looking to grow their international student programs.

The abrupt decline in international students and its impact on study abroad programs during the pandemic may have exceeded our expectations. But experts in education and international policy are optimistic that the industry can rebound from the past year of COVID-19. With the Biden administration’s position on rebuilding its international relationships as well as vaccine rollouts and eventual lifting of travel restrictions, those in the international education industry should remain optimistic of better days ahead.

Cambridge Network is an international education consulting company that provides admissions, academic, and homestay solutions to high schools throughout the United States and Canada. We work to raise the international profile of high schools, enhance diversity, and provide valuable support and supervision for all Cambridge students.

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