International Higher Education Student Enrollment in U.S. Plummets

The Institute of International Education (IIE) released its 2020 Enrollment Survey of preliminary data on international student enrollments in the U.S. in the fall of 2020.  The snapshot reveals that overall enrollment fell by 16%, with new student enrollment plummeting by 43%.

Due to a combination of some colleges and universities switching to remote-only learning, and U.S. consulates being closed for visa processing due to COVID-19, in-person enrollment of new students is down by 72%.  Ninety percent of higher education institutions in the U.S. reported that a total of over 40,000 international students deferred their admission by at least a semester.

While the pandemic has played a role in the decreased enrollment, in a statement quoted in the Wall Street Journal, Ted Mitchell, President of the American Council on Education noted

Well before the pandemic struck, a climate of harsh rhetoric on immigration and concrete actions taken by the Trump administration, such as the travel ban and slower visa processing times, helped fuel the perception that this country is no longer a welcoming place for study and research for outstanding students and scholars from across the globe.

Indeed, as IIE’s annual enrollment reports have indicated, international student enrollment at U.S. higher education institutions has fallen every year since 2016, when hostile rhetoric towards immigrants featured prominently in the run-up to the presidential election.

Declining enrollment obviously impacts the revenue streams of colleges and universities, and the communities where they are located and where international students live and spend.

But international students also make up the majority of graduate students in STEM fields in the U.S., and have the ability to contribute enormously to the nation’s innovation economy.   Indeed, the founder of Moderna, which is reportedly on the cusp of producing an effective vaccine against COVID-19, got his Ph.D. in the U.S., as did the founders or co-founders of companies that employ thousands in the U.S., such as Bloom Energy, Cloudera, SpaceX, Stripe, and WeWork, to name just a few.

It is too early to know whether a new administration will lead to a reversal in the decline in international student enrollment in the U.S., but for the strength of our educational institutions, our communities, and our economy, we should hope so.