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New international student enrolments at US unis fell amid pandemic

US universities
According to the IIE report, new international student enrolments at US universities during the 2020-21 year dropped by 45.6%% compared to 2019-20.

US universities saw a 15% drop in the total number of international students during the 2020-21 academic year, according to a new Open Doors report from the Institute of International Education (IIE) and the US Department of State. 

New international student enrolments during the 2020-21 year dropped by 45.6% compared to 2019-20. There are 914,095 international students at US universities during the 2020-21 academic year, slipping under a million international students for the first time since 2014.

Chinese students at US universities

Chinese students form the largest share of international students at US universities in the 2020-21 academic year at 317,299, followed by India (167,582) and South Korea (39,491). Wrapping up the top 10 are Canada, followed by Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Taiwan, Brazil, Mexico and Nigeria.

A snapshot of international student enrolment at US universities are as follows:

  • Undergraduate enrolment fell by 34%
  • Graduate enrolment fell by 45%
  • Non-degree students fell by 76%
US universities

The top three countries of origin for students studying at US universities include
China, India and South Korea. Source: Patrick Hamilton/AFP

Despite the seemingly bleak outlook, there is some encouraging news. Preliminary snapshot suggests international students appear to be returning to the US in the fall 2021 semester.

US colleges responding to a survey conducted by IIE and nine other higher-ed organisations about enrolment reported a 68% increase in new international student enrolments in fall 2021 compared to fall 2020. They add that the overall number of international students grew by 4%.

IIE chief executive Allan Goodman was quoted saying by the South China Morning Post that COVID-19 is the twelfth pandemic to have occurred during the institute’s 100-year history. Goodman said that precedent suggested a swift rebound in enrolments would come as the pandemic lifts.

“When [a pandemic is] controlled or when it’s over, there is a surge of the kind we very much hope to see, because people have deferred their dream to study abroad but haven’t abandoned it,” said Goodman, speaking to reporters alongside US government education officials.

SCMP said preliminary research into international student levels this autumn found that new enrolments were up 68%, signalling what IIE’s head of research Mirka Martel called the “resilience” of US higher education.

That same study also found that US colleges and universities were focusing their recruitment and outreach efforts on India and China.