After Deep Drops, International Applications Rebound, Survey Finds

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After steep declines in international-student numbers during the Covid-19 pandemic, a new snapshot survey from the Institute of International Education paints a more optimistic international-enrollment picture for the coming fall.

Forty-three percent of colleges said international applications were above 2020 levels, according to the survey results, which were released on Thursday morning. Of that group, about 15 percent reported a “substantial” increase in overseas applicants.

“Confidence is surging from higher-ed institutions for international-student enrollment coming out of the pandemic,” said Mirka Martel, the institute’s head of research, evaluation, and learning.

Here are some key findings from a report on the survey, which also looked at trends for American students studying abroad:

Applications are up — compared with a very bad year. More than four in 10 colleges this past spring reported an increase in applicants, while 20 percent said that trends were about the same as last year.

By comparison, in the spring of 2020, more than half of all colleges experienced application declines, with 20 percent saying the drop was substantial. New international enrollments plummeted 43 percent last fall, with many students unable to get visas or travel to the United States because of Covid. “Universities are prepping for a strong recovery for international applications coming out of the pandemic,” Martel said during a call with reporters.

Yet the pandemic alone does not explain last year’s depressed application numbers, since widespread Covid-19 outbreaks did not begin to occur until well into the admissions cycle. Martel said there may have been “some preliminary Covid effects” on applications as early as January 2020, when the coronavirus first emerged in China, the largest source of international students in the United States.

But she said there were probably multiple reasons for falling interest, including increased competition for international students, changing demographics in key sending countries, and a drop in foreign-government scholarships for overseas study.

Another reason is likely to be the cumulative effect of four years of Trump-administration policies, which were largely seen as unwelcoming to international students. New international enrollments have now fallen four years in a row.

The new survey, however, suggests that the rebound may not be even. While close to 60 percent of doctoral institutions reported an increase in applications, a similar share of community colleges anticipated fewer applicants.

Colleges are planning to welcome international students back to campus but are preparing for contingencies. Eighty-six percent of the respondents said they expected to hold at least some in-person instruction for international students this fall, and none of the institutions reported planning for only virtual instruction.

Still, it’s clear that colleges are planning for the fall with what-ifs in mind. Although the U.S. government has eased travel restrictions for international students and made a priority of processing of student visas, there are huge backlogs. Colleges are also mindful of continuing Covid outbreaks. India, which in a typical year sends about 200,000 students to study in America, has been dealing with a recent surge in cases.

In a sign that colleges were hedging their bets, three-quarters of those surveyed said they would permit international students to defer their enrollment to the spring of 2022. Half said they would offer online study if overseas students could not travel to the United States.

Only 25 percent said they would offer only in-person instruction.

Meanwhile, vaccination requirements are still a work in progress. At the time of the survey, conducted from April 15 to May 5, half of institutions said they had not set vaccine policies. Only 14 percent had requirements in place.

Vaccine mandates add extra complexity for international students, many of whom do not have access to the shots in their home countries.

Colleges are hoping to send students abroad in the new academic year, but many plan to keep virtual study programs developed during the pandemic. The pandemic largely halted study abroad, but half of colleges surveyed plan to allow in-person international study this fall. A third are still in the midst of making that decision.

Even if international travel is somewhat slow to resume, colleges continue to seek ways to give American students a global experience. Fifty-seven percent said they were expanding online or virtual programming.

Still, safety concerns will be at the forefront. Three-quarters of colleges said they had updated their education-abroad policies and procedures during the pandemic, to emphasize health and safety concerns and to allow students greater flexibility to cancel their plans.

As with international-student travel, Covid will continue to affect study-abroad plans. The U.S. State Department has warned Americans against traveling to many countries because of coronavirus outbreaks and low vaccination rates.

As a result, students could opt for “safer” Western countries. Of the top 15 countries where colleges said they planned to permit in-person study in the coming academic year, only five were outside Europe — Australia, Costa Rica, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea.

The survey is the fourth “snapshot” the institute has conducted since March 2020 to examine the impact of the pandemic on global student mobility. It includes responses from 414 institutions that enroll nearly half of all international students or Americans studying abroad.