No surge for international student enrollments at community colleges

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Enrollments of international students at U.S. colleges and universities are rebounding — but not at community colleges, according to a report on preliminary enrollment data for this fall.

Baccalaureate, master’s, doctoral and special-focus institutions in the U.S. are all seeing increases in enrollment of international students, while associate-degree colleges are experiencing a -10% drop, according to findings from a survey of 864 U.S. higher education institutions on current patterns in international student enrollment for fall 2021. A quarter of the surveyed colleges are associate-degree colleges.

The Covid pandemic is affecting U.S. higher education institutions differently, according to “The Fall 2021 International Student Enrollment Snapshot,” which is published annually by the Institute for International Education (IIE) in partnership with the U.S. Department of State.

“While doctoral universities are largely rebounding in their international student enrollments and other institutional types with smaller student numbers, community colleges continue to see a decrease in their international student totals,” the report says. “In providing support in Covid-19 to U.S. colleges and universities, it is critical to consider this variable effect and that the rebounds in international students may not be realized across all types of institutions.”

Huge drop last fall

Overall, higher education institutions this fall reported a 68% increase in the number of new international students enrolling for the first time at a U.S. institution, a significant surge from the 46% decline reported in fall 2020, according to the snapshot report, which complements fall 2020 data from IIE that also was released on Monday. That data further emphasizes that community colleges’ international enrollments have been especially hard hit.

Last fall, due largely to the pandemic, associate-degree institutions saw significant drops in enrollment of international students, nearly one-quarter fewer than fall 2019. Two-year colleges experienced a -24% decrease in international student enrollments compared to the previous fall, dropping from 79,187 to 60,170, according to the Open Doors report, which included international students enrolled at U.S. higher education institutions in the United States and online from abroad, and those on optional practical training.

The report also breaks down the figures by types of associate-degree institutions. For example, two-year colleges with high transfers — which have the bulk of international students — saw a -25.4% drop in fall 2020 compared to fall 2019 (28,646 compared to 38,397, respectively). Two-year colleges that also offer baccalaureates — which represent the second largest group of international students — saw a decrease of -27.5% (15,802 compared to 21,801).

Houston Community College remains at the top with the highest number of international students at community colleges, though it too saw a decline, from 4,723 in 2019-20 to 3,636 in 2020-21. Rounding up the top 10 are: Lone Star College in Texas (2,884), Santa Monica College in California (2,104), California’s De Anza College (1,865) and Dallas College in Texas (1,450), Montgomery College in Maryland (1,446), Valencia College in Florida (1,345), Orange Coast College in California (1,180), Northern Virginia Community College (1,167) and Miami-Dade College in Florida (974).

Community college advocates are hopeful the numbers at community colleges will grow as international students become more comfortable with traveling abroad and seeking an affordable college education.

“As travel restrictions are lifted, the pandemic subsides, visa office processing normalizes, and our nation provides a more unified welcoming message, community colleges remain hopeful that international student enrollments will return to pre-pandemic levels in the coming years and possibly to the all-time highs experienced in 2016,” said Wayne Wheeler, director of international programs and services at the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).

Economic impact

AACC has joined a national effort among higher education associations to increase the number of international students at U.S. colleges and universities to pre-pandemic levels. A joint statement addresses the vital role international students play in U.S. higher education and to the country’s economy and workforce.

“International students not only add to the diversity of our institutions, but they also contribute to the American economy by supporting jobs and businesses and by fueling innovation,” the statement says. “As the U.S. recovers from the pandemic-induced economic downturn, international students can help support a lasting recovery. International students continue to bolster the U.S. economy even after they complete their studies; many go on to help American companies stay on the leading edge or even start their own businesses and create jobs.”

A new analysis by NAFSA: Association of International Educators released Monday shows the economic impact of having fewer international students in U.S. communities, including students at community colleges. International students studying at community colleges contributed $1.5 billion and supported 7,850 jobs to the U.S. economy during the 2020-2021 academic year. By comparison, the 2017-2018 community college data was $2.7 billion and 15,157 jobs created or supported.

The number of international students at associate-degree colleges reached a high of 96,472 in 2016-17 and has dropped since then, according to IIE data. The percent of international students at community colleges comprising the total number of international students at U.S. colleges and universities also has steadily dropped this decade, from a high of 14.9% in 2004-05 to 7.4% in 2019-20, according to the Open Doors report. In both the fall 2018-19 and 2019-20, there were -8.3% decreases in international students at two-year colleges, the largest percent declines this decade in the sector.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily and serves as publications director for the American Association of Community Colleges.