By Ryan Li
It is no surprise that American international-student numbers have fallen hard in the last year, thanks to new restrictions and drastic pandemic-related reductions in international travel. The 2019-2020 school year saw an unprecedented 18% decrease in the number of international students applying for F-1 and M-1 visas in the United States, costing colleges across the country $9.5 billion in lost revenue, according to the nonprofit higher-education journalism organization Open Campus Media.
Yet, COVID does not explain everything. The U.S. has seen a particularly unusual decline in foreign student numbers compared to some other developed countries. The United Kingdom, for example, the United Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) actually reported an 11% increase in 2020 enrollments in British universities, as did Germany’s college admission system.
The recent American decline in particular can be partially attributed to a drop in interest from Asian students, who represented 70% of America’s international student population. The majority of the foriegn students in the U.S are from China, which, in 2019, represented 35% of America’s international student population. This year, Chinese enrollment in American universities has dropped almost 18%. WIth the rise of anti-Asian hate, skyrocketing tuition costs, and COVID-related travel restrictions that have only recently been lifted, the biggest foreign customer of U.S. higher education is simply not as interested.
From a certain point of view, the fact that international student numbers have declined is not surprising. Though the number of people studying abroad in the United States peaked in the Fall 2018-2019 enrollment period at 1 million, this only marked a 0.2% increase compared to the previous year, according to Open Doors Data. In comparison, the Fall 2017-2018 enrollment period saw a 2.4% increase in international student numbers from the previous year.
What is concerning, however, is how quickly international student numbers have fallen in light of the pandemic. The international student population in America consists of 1.1 million individuals, or 6% of the total American higher-learning community. According to Statista, domestic American undergraduate college enrollment has been on steady decline since 2011, dropping from 25.2 million students in the 2011-2012 school year to 22.8 million students in the 2019-2020 school year. Considering that American secondary-school graduation rates have risen 6% in the past 10 years, projections that predict the metric will only rise at a slow .02% over the next ten years means that international students could prove crucial to keeping higher-learning institutions in the United States competitive.
Further, international students have an outsized positive influence on their domestic peers. Students studying abroad in the U.S. bring incredible benefits not only for the American college environment, but also the economy as a whole. In addition to playing a key role in diversifying the U.S. higher-learning environment, the international student population also assists domestic American students greatly. For starters, foreigners studying abroad in the U.S. pay, on average, $26,000 more than their domestic counterparts, often paying full tuition and subsidizing the costs of scholarships and financial aid. According to a study by Professor Kevin Shih of the City University of New York, claims of international students displacing American ones are largely unfounded. In fact, Shih concludes that the opposite is true: positive inflows of foreign students in the U.S. actually encourages domestic enrollment. “Positive effects are due to cross-subsidization” Shih writes, “high net tuition revenue from international students helps offset the costs of enrolling additional domestic students”.
The U.S. Department of Commerce seems to agree with Shih. According to the government agency, international students brought in more than $45 billion of revenue into the U.S. markets alone. 62% of students from foreign countries source the majority of their funds from outside the United States. This is in addition to the skilled jobs that international students often fill upon graduation, further benefiting the American economy. So if the net impact of international students is positive for U.S. colleges, what should be made of the decline—and partial recovery—of foreign student numbers in the U.S? There is still room for optimism, however. The Fall 2020-2021 college application period saw a surprisingly fast rebound in international student applications to American schools, with numbers jumping up 10%. Still, a long road to recovery remains. □