US Universities Seek International Student Enrollment To Recover This Fall


Will international student enrollment in US colleges and universities rebound over the next academic year? This is a question that arises in the higher education landscape right now, as a new report from the Institute of International Education (IIE) COVID -19 Snapshot Series indicates growing optimism for a recovery.

New data from the IIE, contained in a report titled Preparing for the future: the way forward for international exchanges in education, indicate that the vast majority of U.S. institutions intend to bring students back to campus, with 86% planning some type of in-person study for fall 2021 (62% planning a hybrid of in-person and virtual classes; 24 % plan exclusively on-going per person). None of the reporting institutions intend to offer virtual education only.

These plans for the fall reflect what was already happening on campuses in the United States during the spring semester of 2021, as virus rates began to decline and vaccination rates increased.

More than half of all institutions indicated that the majority of their international students have taken in-person classes at some point during the spring semester. Undergraduate colleges were more likely to have the majority of students attending in-person classes (64%), while only 37% of community colleges enrolled the majority of their students in in-person classes.

“Universities are bracing for a strong upturn in enrollments in international education after the pandemic emerges,” said Mirka Martel, head of research, assessment and learning at IIE. “We expect the recovery to be phased, linked to vaccinations and travel guidelines. But there is certainly a concerted effort by U.S. higher education institutions to reopen their campuses and encourage all students, including international students, to return to school in person. “

The survey asked respondents to assess the impact of the coronavirus on U.S. higher education institutions and global student mobility to and from the United States. It is based on data collected from 414 higher education institutions between April 15 and May 5, 2021. Respondents included institutions in the IIE network, with more than 7,000 professional members in 1,300 higher education institutions in around the world, and respondents to the Open House 2020 Report on international educational exchanges.

Other key findings include:

  • International student applications are in place: 43% of institutions reported an increase in their applications from international students for the 2021-2022 academic year. But the status of the requests varied according to the type of establishment. While 59% of doctoral universities reported increases in applicants, 58% of community colleges reported decreases. This pattern mirrors what has generally been seen throughout the pandemic – community college attendance has been the hardest hit of all higher education sectors.
  • Recruitment remains a priority: Most US colleges and universities (77%) continue to fund outreach and international student recruitment at the same or higher level than before. The majority rely on online recruiting events (73%), work with current international students on other campuses (68%) and social media (65%).
  • Universities are increasing their support for international students: For example, many have streamlined their application and admission processes. More than half (57%) said they allow online testing instead of in-person testing, and 48% of establishments are now waiving standardized testing requirements in place of other credentials. Many institutions have reported an increase in services such as crisis management, special accommodation and financial assistance to help international students cope with emergencies related to the pandemic.
  • Immunization policies are still being refined: Vaccination requirements for fall 2021 are still evolving at many universities, partly because of political pressure in several states for institutions not to force vaccines and partly because of institutional indecision as to the policy to be put in place for the fall. Only 14% of facilities reported a current vaccine requirement. Less than half (45%) do not plan to be vaccinated before students arrive on campus. More than half (64%) plan to offer Covid-19 vaccines to students, faculty and campus staff.
  • Prospects for studying abroad are also improving: After facing overwhelming hurdles last year due to the pandemic and travel restrictions, studies abroad are looking to bounce back. Around 50% of institutions anticipate an increase in the number of studies abroad for 2021-2022. This is a major turnaround from last year, when 97% of establishments expected declines. In fact, through creative programming, many schools have been able to pursue some form of study abroad. More than half of reporting institutions reported offering global education experiences of some type in the summer of 2021.
  • In-person study abroad is recovering: Almost half (49%) of institutions plan to study in-person abroad for fall 2021, and 54% plan to do so by spring 2022. At this point, only 2% have canceled their study abroad program.


Earlier this week, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center released its latest Spring 2001 enrollment report showing total college enrollments fell to 16.9 million, down from over 600,000 students – or 3.5% – compared to a year ago. The one-year drop was the biggest drop in spring semester enrollment since 2011, but the report did not include numbers specifically for international students.

Early indications from other sources suggest that after three years of stable or declining international applications, 2021-2022 is shaping up to be a good year, with interest from international students picking up.

Compared to 2019-2020, the volume of international applicants has increased by around 9% this year according to data from the Common Application, as of January 22. Most of the major “sending” countries show increases, with the notable exception of China. , the main source of international students. But this decrease was more than offset by substantial increases from countries like India, Canada, Nigeria, Pakistan, the United Kingdom and Brazil.

Part of the reason for the takeover could be what has been referred to as the ‘Biden bump,’ due to the more welcoming signs the Biden administration has sent to foreign students about the policies of the Trump administration. Whether or not the “bump” continues depends on several factors involving the state of the pandemic and the vaccination rate in the receiving and sending countries and US travel restrictions for the rest of the year.

One policy that could facilitate greater and safer internationalization would be for institutions to require vaccination of international students and domestic students who wish to study in person abroad. It would likely face less political backlash than a campus-wide vaccination warrant, and it is likely to comply with international travel guidelines.

About IIE

Founded in 1919, IIE is committed to the premise that “international trade could make the world a safer, more interconnected place.” He works with partner companies, governments and foundations around the world to design and manage scholarship, study abroad, workforce training and leadership development programs.



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