A huge drop in international students


Community colleges experienced an 8.3% decline in international students in 2019-20, according to the 2020 Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange.

Overall, the number of international students declined 1.8% at all types of higher education institutions in 2019-20 compared to the previous year, according to the annual report from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the Institute of International Education (IIE).

There was a 1.5% increase in international students at U.S. baccalaureate institutions and a 7.5% decline in master’s degree programs.

Higher education advocates expect much bigger declines for the current academic year due to the global pandemic and political and social unrest in the U.S.

‘Pent-up demand’

The total number of international students at higher education institutions in the U.S. and studying online outside the U.S. decreased by 16% during the current semester, according to estimates in the Fall 2020 Snapshot, which accompanied the Open Doors report. New international student enrollment in the U.S. (in-person and online from abroad) decreased by 43% in fall 2020.

“We’ve never had a decrease like that,” said IIE President Allan Goodman.

He anticipates a big surge in international students when the pandemic ends, noting there is “tremendous pent-up demand.”

About 90% of participating institutions report international student deferrals in fall 2020. They indicate that nearly 40,000 students have deferred enrollment to a future term.

That means there are “tens of thousands of international students waiting in the wings with future plans to come here,” said Anthony Kohila, director of the Office of Global Education Programs at the State Department. U.S. colleges and universities “are upping their outreach game and keeping their eyes on the horizon.”

Among other findings in the Fall 2020 Snapshot:

  • One in five international students (20%) are studying online from their home country this fall.
  • Most institutions report providing specific support to international students on campus and online, such as virtual networking events (74%), adapting course schedules and teaching methods to accommodate international students (68%), and emergency funding for international students on campus (29%).
  • 82% of responding institutions report increasing virtual recruitment through online recruitment events (74%) and virtual campus visits (54%).
  • 64% of institutions have committed funding for outreach and recruitment of international students at the same level or higher than previously.

More than 710 institutions participated in the Snapshot survey, a subset of the more than 2,900 institutions surveyed for Open Doors.

A critical baseline

The 2020 Open Doors report covers data prior to Covid disrupting international travel. As a result, it provides a critical baseline on the state of international educational exchange before the pandemic, said Mirka Martel, head of research, evaluation and learning at IIE.

Despite the overall decline in 2019-2020, new international student enrollment continued to stabilize – declining just 0.6% – after a drop of 7% over the previous two years, according to the report.

Among associate-degree granting institutions, the Houston Community College System in Texas once again hosted the most international students in 2019-20 with 4,723. Rounding out the top 10 are the Lone Star College System (Texas), Santa Monica College (California), De Anza College (California), Montgomery College (Maryland), Valencia College (Florida), Northern Virginia Community College, Orange Coast College (California), Green River College (Washington) and Miami-Dade College (Florida).

Countries that have sent a growing proportion of students to community colleges include Vietnam, Nepal, Brazil and Japan.

Overall, the U.S. has hosted 1,075,496 international students in 2019-20 and more than 1 million annually for the past five years. International students still comprise 5.5% of all students in U.S. higher education and have contributed $44 billion to the U.S. economy in 2019.

China has sent the most students to U.S. colleges and universities for the 16th consecutive year. There were more than 372,000 Chinese students in the U.S. during 2019-20, an increase of 0.8%. India is in second place, despite a 4% decline to 193,124 students. South Korea is third.

More than half (52%) of international students are pursuing STEM majors, and 20.5% are studying engineering.

“International student mobility is as important today as ever, and we believe the United States is the best destination for students to study and earn their degrees,” said Marie Royce, assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs.

U.S. students abroad

During the 2018-19 academic year, 347,099 U.S. students studied abroad for academic credit, a 1.6% increase over the previous year. Americans who study abroad are increasingly diverse, with 31% percent of them identifying as racial or ethnic minorities, according to the report.

European countries remain the most popular destination for U.S. students, hosting more than 193,000 students (+3%) and accounting for more than half (56%) of all U.S. students abroad. Latin America and the Caribbean remains the second most popular region (14%), followed by Asia (12%).

“We’re proud to see Americans studying abroad in greater numbers than ever before. American students are powerful ambassadors for our nation, and study abroad often provides the foundation for future careers as successful diplomats, innovators, educators and entrepreneurs,” Royce said.

About the Author

Ellie Ashford
is associate editor of Community College Daily.