Global Connections: Uncertainties around international students

Community colleges are facing a sharp reduction in international students.

As the start of the 2020-21 academic year approached, community colleges were faced with a myriad of shifting factors when deciding whether to conduct all their classes online due to health concerns regarding the global pandemic.

For many, the impact on international students was an important consideration in that decision.

Leading up to the pandemic, approximately two-thirds of community colleges had international students on their campuses, where they added an essential element of diversity to college classrooms and surrounding communities.

However, over the last three years, international student enrollment at community colleges has dramatically dropped – from a 15-year high of 96,472 down to 86,351 – a decline of more than 10%, according to IIE Open Doors data.

In 2019, the annual International Student Economic Value Tool by NAFSA: Association of International Educators indicated that international students at community colleges contributed $2.6 billion to the national economy and supported 13,970 U.S. jobs. That’s a decline of more than $100,000 and nearly 1,200 jobs from the previous year.

Long before the pandemic, community colleges were concerned that international student enrollment and concomitant revenues would continue to decline into 2020 and 2021.

In response, international offices at community colleges increased the intensity of their recruitment activities. They welcomed the federal government’s emphasis and resources directed toward educating prospective international students and their parents about the benefits of U.S. community colleges.

Travel restrictions

However, many community college educators expressed concerns that the volume of harmful messaging from high-ranking U.S. officials and lawmakers, as well as the many sudden and unfavorable changes to visa regulations and Department of Homeland Security guidance, was hampering their efforts to reassure prospective international students that they are welcome and valued.

Some unfavorable changes to U.S. rules and regulations already implemented or proposed have affected visa costs, eligibility, maintenance of status, duration of stay and the ability to gain job experience after graduation.

In July, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued guidance that would have required international students to immediately leave the country if their colleges decided to provide only online education during the pandemic. Colleges were given only 15 days to respond.

International students’ reaction to the news – whether they stayed in the U.S. or left and were planning to return – was surprise and disbelief.

Some who had gone home and were planning to return to the U.S. to continue their studies scrambled to cancel long-planned travel arrangements, a process made more difficult by the pandemic.

International students who had remained in the U.S. began scrambling to find transportation back home at a time when many international borders were closed. Although ICE rescinded its guidance after legal action was filed, it left many current and prospective international students confused and uncertain about the value and stability of studying in the U.S.

Under the current ICE guidance, new international students cannot receive a student visa to study at a college that has decided to provide only online classes because of the pandemic.

While online instruction is a viable solution for many local students, differences in time zones and other accessibility issues present difficulties for many international students considering whether to enroll in online U.S. college courses from their home countries.

Notably, nearly 20% of international students at community colleges have historically come from China, which has a 12-hour time difference.

Will students return?

At the start of the pandemic, when nations began to close their borders, colleges closed their campuses and businesses shut down, community colleges provided tremendous support and resources to their international students. Colleges ensured they had essential food, shelter, physical and mental health services if they chose to stay and assistance with travel arrangements if they chose to leave.

Community college leaders hope that many of those students will return to complete their studies. They also plan to let prospective international students know that they, too, will be highly valued and supported.

But, as the pandemic continues in the U.S., colleges leaders are bracing themselves for the possibility that the 2020 IIE Fall International Student Enrollment Snapshot will indicate an unprecedented decline in international student enrollment at community colleges.

Others wonder if the frequent presence of international students on community college campuses, like predictions of so many other aspects of post-pandemic life and work, has changed forever.

About the Author

Wayne Wheeler
is director of international programs and services at the American Association of Community Colleges.