International students returning to the US, but below pre-COVID levels

International students returning to the US, but below pre-COVID levels

International students have returned to US colleges in stronger numbers this year, but the recovery has yet to offset historical declines last year as COVID-19 continues to disrupt academic exchange, according to a new survey.

Nationally, US colleges and universities saw a 4% annual increase in international students this fall, according to survey results released Monday by the Institute of International Education. But that comes after a 15% drop last year – the largest drop since the institute began publishing data in 1948.

The improvement was better than many colleges expected over the summer with the high delta variable. But it also reflects persistent hurdles as the visa backlog continues and some students are showing reluctance to study abroad during the pandemic.

US universities and officials hope this year’s rally will be the start of a long-term recovery. With international travel surging, there is optimism that colleges will see growth beyond pre-pandemic levels.

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“We expect an increase in the wake of the pandemic,” Acting Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Lossenhope told reporters. He added that the increase this year indicates that international students “continue to value education in the United States and remain committed to continuing to study in the United States.”

Overall, 70% of US colleges reported a slight increase in international students this fall, while 20% saw a decline and 10% remained at the level, according to the institute. It is based on an initial survey of more than 800 US schools. The nonprofit plans to release full nationwide statements next year.

At least some of the increase is due to freshmen who were hoping to come to the United States last year but have delayed their plans because of the pandemic. Finally, there was a 68% increase in newly enrolled international students this year, a significant increase compared to last year’s 46% decrease.

For many schools, even a modest improvement is a relief. Over the summer, officials at US universities were concerned that the delta’s shape might dash any hopes of a rebound. But for many, that did not materialize.

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In August, US embassies and consulates in India reported that they had recently issued visas to a record number of 55,000 students even after starting the process two months late due to COVID-19. Embassies in China reported that they issued 85,000 student visas.

At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, more than 10,000 international students are enrolled this fall, roughly equivalent to a 28% drop from last year.

“What we are seeing now is a return to normal for our international population,” said Andy Burst, director of undergraduate admissions at the university. The recovery is fueling fresh undergraduates, with students from India up nearly 70% from pre-pandemic levels.

“We’ve had that pent-up demand,” Borst said. “A lot of the Big Ten Schools have seen increases that are more than we expected.”

At some of the top-brand schools abroad, enrollment has rebounded beyond 2019 numbers. More than 17,000 international students enrolled at NYU this fall, up 14% from 2019, according to school data.

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At the University of Rochester, another top destination for international students in New York, enrollment rates from abroad are up 70% from 2019 levels, driven by a boom in graduate students, according to the school’s data.

Most students were able to make it to campus within the first weeks of term, said Jennifer Plask, head of the university’s international admissions department, but many dealt with visa backlogs at US embassies and consulates, not to mention expensive flights and cancellations.

The vast majority of American colleges are back to in-person learning by this fall, but not all international students are physically on campus. After last year’s shift to distance learning, many schools continued to offer online classes to overseas students, allowing thousands to remain enrolled from afar.

Of all the international students enrolled in US colleges this year, the survey found that about 65% were taking classes on campus.

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For Chinese students unable to make it this semester, NYU continues to allow them to use its academic center in Shanghai, which is traditionally for American students studying abroad. The university also allowed international students to use its London and Abu Dhabi locations last year, but has since brought them back for use on study abroad programmes.

For some colleges, the new flexibility of online learning has helped avoid further enrollment setbacks. In the past, students at the University of San Francisco might have been able to start a semester a week late if they had problems with visas or travel. Now, those who face delays in obtaining the visa can arrive in the middle of the term or later, and at the same time study online from abroad.

Facing travel restrictions within Vietnam, graduate student Vinh Lu was unable to reach Ho Chi Minh City Airport in time for the start of autumn classes. Instead, he studied online for more than two months until he could get his first vaccine, which allowed him to travel.

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He said that taking the lessons online was difficult due to the time difference, but that the professors were “very supportive” and recorded their lectures for you to watch at any time. He ended up with the University of San Francisco on November 1.

International students are seen as important contributors to American universities for a variety of reasons. The colleges say they help provide a diverse mix of cultures and views on campus. Many end up working in areas that are in high demand after graduation. Some colleges rely on the financial benefits of international students, who are usually charged higher tuition fees.

Although many colleges have avoided a sophomore decline, there is still concern that this upward trend may be isolated to certain types of colleges. The new survey finds that in the past year, community colleges have experienced steeper declines than four-year universities, with a 24% decline nationwide.

Researchers are still analyzing this year’s data, but some worry that community colleges may continue to lag behind.

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There are also questions about whether the bounce will continue this year. New vaccine requirements for foreign travelers may make it difficult for some students to get here, and colleges expect continued competition from colleges in Australia, Canada and other countries looking to increase their international population.

Officials at many colleges remain optimistic. More vaccines are being sent abroad, and the newly lifted travel ban promises to lower barriers to travel. Some also credit President Joe Biden for sending the message that America wants students from abroad.

In July, the department released a statement promising a “renewed” commitment to international education, saying it would work to make international students feel welcome.

This is a diversion from the Trump administration, said Rachel Banks, director of public policy and legislative strategy at NAFSA, an international education association.

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“In the previous administration, there was a lot of negativity and negative rhetoric about international students,” Banks said. “Biden is now trying to telegraph the world that there is an interest in international students coming here.”

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