COVID Blamed for Sharp Drop in International Enrollment at US Colleges

28 November 2020

Sai Naini of India is just two terms short of completing a master's degree program in the United States. The 28-year-old studies cybersecurity at the University of Toledo in Ohio. Or he used to.

Last summer, Naini had to leave school suddenly when his father became very sick with the disease COVID-19. He reached the hospital in India just four hours before his father died.

"He was emotional; he was in tears," Naini said. "I think he was waiting to see someone who would take care of my mother, and then he left."

Two months later, when Naini was ready to return to the university, U.S. officials denied his visa request. He said the only explanation he got is that the decision was "based on guidelines they received from the White House."

"Everything changed," Naini said. "The goals I had changed. The milestones I had changed."

Problems and new policies brought on by COVID-19 have stopped thousands of international students from attending U.S. colleges this year. The sharp drop could lead to long-lasting effects in schools that depend financially on international students.

At risk are millions of dollars in tuition payments and some of the world's best minds for U.S. employers.

The number of new international students has been falling in recent years because of rules limiting student visas and competition from other countries. But COVID-19 has been a crushing blow.

New international student enrollment in U.S. universities this term is down by 43 percent. That number comes from a new study of more than 700 schools. The non-profit Institute of International Education reported the findings. The group has been publishing data on international enrollment since 1954.

The study found total international enrollment, including new and returning students, fell by 16 percent. And it showed that among those who did enroll at U.S. colleges, about one in five were studying online from outside the United States.

A sign for Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio is seen in this May 8, 2019 photo.
A sign for Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio is seen in this May 8, 2019 photo.

Some of the nation's largest universities experienced a big drop in international students. The number of undergraduate and graduate international students at Michigan State University was down 20 percent. The University of Texas reported a drop of 17 percent. The state university systems in Arizona and Ohio each said that foreign student enrollment shrank by 15 percent.

Administrators agree the pandemic created barriers for students, from job losses and financial difficulty, to worries over U.S. government policies.

Universities were flooded with questions from concerned parents. They wanted to know where their children would live if colleges closed student housing. They wanted to know what would happen if their child got sick. Some students decided to stay home because of those worries.

It all has forced students to make difficult choices. One University of Toledo student decided not to go home even when two relatives died of COVID-19, said Tracey Hidalgo, an official with the school.

"They just bawl their eyes out and tell me ‘no' because they're worried, they're not going to be able to come back," she said.

Adding to the problems of the health crisis are worries about changes to U.S. immigration policy. Experts say there is a growing belief that the country is no longer as welcoming for international students.

The combination makes for a very difficult situation, said Leonardo Villalon, head of the University of Florida's International Center. "International higher education is under the greatest stress it has been in decades."

The drop in enrollment will be felt in budgets at colleges because foreign students usually pay higher tuition than in-state students. The University of Illinois alone estimates it will lose about $26 million this term.

And high-tech companies will suffer. They depend on foreign-born people who come to the U.S. for training, Villalon noted.

"Where do we want the best and brightest young people in the world to go?" he said. "If you're running a research lab studying the coronavirus, you want the very best in there."

There is hope among some college officials that President-elect Joe Biden will overturn some Trump administration immigration orders, as promised. Biden also has said he would seek a new pathway to citizenship for foreigners who complete U.S. doctoral programs.

U.S. universities are also facing increased competition from countries, including Canada and Australia, that are appealing to foreign students. And China is heavily investing in its colleges.

Ousmane Barry is a Guinean refugee who moved to Italy. He won an academic scholarship to Whitman College in Washington state.

Barry was to begin classes at the school last summer. But his visa request was turned down because he could not show enough ties to his home country. He still has hope that he will get another chance.

Going to the United States to study is the best, he said, because of all the educational possibilities it offers.

"I'm not trying to work or spend my life there," said the 21-year-old."All I'm looking for is a better education and then to go back to my country."

I'm Caty Weaver. And I'm Mario Ritter, Jr.

The Associated Press reported this story. Caty Weaver adapted the story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

master's degree n. a degree that is given to a student by a college or university usually after one or two years of additional study following a bachelor's degree

milestonen. an important point in the progress or development of something

tuition n. money that is paid to a school for the right to study there

enrollment n. to enter (someone) as a member of or participant in something

undergraduate n. a student at a college or university who has not yet earned a degree

bawl v. to cry intensely

under stressidiom dealing with something that causes worry or anxiety: under pressure

decaden. a period of 10 years

academic scholarshipn. a money prize given to a high-performing student to help pay for further education