International Students Are Coming Back to U.S. Colleges
After the Trump Slump, top U.S. schools are seeing a rebound in applications from abroad—with one very big exception
On the long list of Donald Trump’s dubious accomplishments as President, there’s one you might have missed: an unprecedented decline in applications from foreign students seeking to attend U.S. colleges and grad schools.
The U.S. has long been the top destination for international students. About one million international students are currently enrolled in colleges and universities here — more than twice the number studying in the second and third top destination countries. But thanks to a toxic combination of racist and xenophobic rhetoric, travel bans, and student visa restrictions, international applications to U.S. schools have declined during every year of the Trump administration, starting in the 2016–2017 academic year.
In addition to bringing a global perspective to U.S. campuses, foreign students contribute about $40 billion a year to the US economy, creating three jobs for every seven international students who come to study here.
With the pandemic, the bottom fell out: for the fall 2020 semester, enrollments of new international students were down 43% from 2019, according to a November 2020 survey of more than 700 U.S. higher education institutions by the nonprofit Institute for International Education. A February survey by the Council of Graduate Schools found that first-time enrollment of international graduate students dropped a similar, and unprecedented, 39% from fall 2019 to fall 2020.
At what cost? The direct and indirect impact of international students on the U.S. economy has been well studied. In addition to bringing a global perspective to U.S. campuses, foreign students contribute about $40 billion a year to the US economy, creating three jobs for every seven international students who come to study here, according to advocacy group NAFSA: Association of International Educators. (During the 2019–2020 academic year, the total economic contribution from international students declined —by 4.4% — for the first time in over 20 years that NAFSA has been calculating this number.) What’s more, research shows that the presence of international graduate students actually helps to increase the enrollment of domestic students. And let’s not forget, that roughly one quarter of founders of $1 billion-plus U.S. startups first came to America as international students.
A long-term decline in international students is clearly bad news. But there are signs that things are turning around, evidence of what some are calling a “Biden bump.” Early data from Common App, which processes applications for more than 900 U.S. member colleges, showed a surge in international applications, with an increase of 13% over the prior year (through February 15, 2021). Counselors at AcceptU, a college admissions consultant with about 25% international clients, began to see more interest from international students and their parents after Biden was elected in November, says COO Stephen Friedfeld. “Many prospective clients told us last summer and fall that they were waiting for the results of the presidential election before deciding if they would pursue a degree in the US.”
As with applications from Black and Latinx and first-generation college students, the increases in international applications were mostly limited to more selective (less than 50% admit rate), private institutions. The University of Pennsylvania, for example, got more than 11,000 international applications for the class of 2025 — a record 50% increase from last year, driven in part by a test-optional admission policy. Overall, according to Common App, large (more than10,000 total undergrad and grad enrollment), selective private institutions saw a 24% increase in application volume from international applicants relative to 2019. Smaller, more selective, private members saw 22% growth. Less selective private and public member institutions had overall smaller increases or even declines in international applications.
Last year, one of every three international students on an American campus was from China.
Common App data from one month earlier showed significant increases from particular “sending countries,” including India (+28%). Canada (+22%), Pakistan (+37%), the United Kingdom (+23%), and Brazil (+41%). But there was one very significant outlier: applicants from China declined by 18%.
To put that in perspective, in the dozen years preceding the Covid pandemic, the number of Chinese students studying in the United States increased 450%, from 67,700 in 2006 to 372,500 in 2019. Last year, one of every three international students on an American campus was from China. According to the U.S. State Department-funded Open Doors, these Chinese students contributed approximately $15.9 billion to the US. Economy.
Now, though, college counselors and recruiters say Chinese students and their families are concerned about the handling of the coronavirus here, as well as rising anti-Asian sentiment. To be sure, US-China relations worsened considerably under Trump, from a trade war to accusations of espionage against Chinese nationals for alleged visa fraud. In addition, the Trump administration added special visa restrictions on Chinese students, including graduate students in certain STEM fields and those with ties to universities affiliated with the Chinese military. Between April and September 2020, the number of F-1 student visas issued to Chinese nationals was down 99% from the prior year, with only 808 visas granted to Chinese students. In September 2020 alone, the Trump administration declined the U.S. visas of more than 1,000 Chinese students.
Apparently, getting visas is still a problem. According to a petition called “Chinese F1 Student Visa Crises for 2021–2022 School Year” published by NAFSA’s China interest group, Chinese students have been unable to apply for F1 student visas through U.S. consulates in China for more than 13 months. The petition states that the earliest available appointment in Guangzhou is currently August 12, and no appointments are available at the other three U.S. consulates in China. This means that even if students have been accepted to U.S. schools for fall 2021, they would not have visas in time to attend.
Meanwhile, many Chinese students are taking their higher-education dollars to places like Canada, Australia, and the UK. A recent survey of 2.3 million prospective students and families by the Beijing Overseas Study Service Association, a Chinese government-supported organization supporting study abroad found that Britain edged out the United States as the destination of choice.
In a March 22 editorial in Inside Higher Ed, the co-chairs of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration urged “reviewing and reducing barriers that block international student alumni of colleges and universities in the United States from continuing to stay and contribute to the country.” They’ve got their work cut out for them.