US: International enrolments fell sharply in 2020 but are now rebounding
November 19, 2021


IIE and government officials emphasized the Biden administration's strong support for initiatives to rebuild international student enrolments in the US at a press conference revealing the Institute of International Education's (IIE) Open Doors data for the 2020/21 academic year. While international student enrolment declined in 2020/21, data from the IIE's 2021 Fall International Student Enrolment Snapshot survey shows that this support, combined with fewer pandemic-related travel barriers, is contributing to a "surge" in new international enrolments that will continue into the 2021/22 academic year.

The annual IIE data come from a survey of over 3,000 higher education institutions, whereas the data from the 2021 Fall Snapshot survey comes from over 860 schools.

Calculating the fall 2020 drop

According to the Open Doors® 2021 Report, the number of new international students enrolling in US higher education institutions declined by nearly half (46%) in 2020/21. The number of overseas students enrolled in various higher education sectors fell by 15% overall. In 2020/21, 914,095 international students were enrolled in US higher education programs, a considerable decrease from the 1,075,495 who were enrolled in 2019/20.

Continuing enrolments, on the other hand, were substantially less affected, falling by only 3%. This is a COVID-related tendency that may be found in almost every major location. IIE has linked the trend to “international students [pausing or slowing] the pace of their academic study, thereby remaining enrolled for a longer period at their host institution … and institutions [providing] support for continuing international students who were already in the country.”

The findings reflect a period of time that involved considerable interruption, according to Mirka Martel, IIE's head of research, evaluation, and learning:

“Throughout the 2020 spring and summer semesters, international student applications, selection, and visa processes were severely impacted by the pandemic. Further, international travel was also restricted. As a result, the Fall 2020 semester saw largely hybrid models in place, with approximately 20% of international students studying online from abroad.”

Because of the pandemic's huge changes to the higher education scene, the latest Open Doors report included every international student learning in any way (in person, online, in the US, or abroad) in its enrollment totals. Previously, overseas students were only defined as students with student visas studying at US institutions.

The United States' stance has taken a dramatic turn for the better.

The press conference was meticulously planned to reassure the media, education stakeholders in the United States and abroad, and international students that the United States welcomes foreign students and encourages American students to study abroad as part of its commitment to global engagement and cooperation. The conference's tone was in stark contrast to previous President Trump's statements and policies, which made it difficult for US higher education institutions to sustain overseas enrolments.

United States Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, grinning broadly, told the conference,

“I encourage all Americans to consider pursuing opportunities abroad to study … I also believe that the incredible diversity of our nation’s students is one of America’s greatest strengths, and our country wholeheartedly welcomes international students, researchers, and scholars to our campuses to share their rich perspectives, cultures, and languages – as well as their creativity and innovation – to enrich our communities.”

Acting Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Lussenhop added,

“International students are central to the free flow of ideas, innovation, economic prosperity, and peaceful relations between nations. As reiterated in the recent Joint Statement of Principles in Support of International Education by the US Departments of State and Education, the United States is strongly committed to international education as we continue to build back better.”

Signs of a return

A number of factors point to the country's resurgence as a destination for overseas students. Higher education institutions responding to the IIE's 2021 Fall International Student Enrollment Snapshot survey (conducted in collaboration with nine other institutions) reported a 68 percent increase in international student commencements, compared to a 46 percent decline in Fall 2020. According to the most recent Snapshot survey, the total number of international students (enrolled and OPT) grew by 4% from Fall 2020 enrolments.

 Year-over-year changes in total foreign enrolment in the US. Source: IIE
Year-over-year changes in total foreign enrolment in the US. Source: IIE

As shown in the screenshot below, 40 percent of institutions responding to the Fall 2021 Snapshot survey reported "significant" enrolment increases.

Fall 2021 enrollment trends as reported by US higher education institutions. Source: IIE’s 2021 Fall International Student Enrollment Snapshot

Data in IDP Connect’s student-facing websites also found that last month, the US “surpassed Canada for international student demand share, indicating continuing competition between the two North American countries.” Canada has benefited the most from decreasing foreign student demand for the United States in recent years, and it continues to be popular with students seeking higher affordability and immigration opportunities (among other motivations).

Highlights from the data

IIE data revealed the following in the context of a general downward trend in international enrolments in 2020/21:

  • In 2020, international students made up 5% of all students in US higher education, contributing $39 billion to the US economy.
  • Of total enrolments (representing students from over 200 countries), 359,790 were undergraduate (down by 14%), 329,270 were graduate (-12%), 21,150 were non-degree (-64% – due especially to a massive decline in Intensive English Programme enrolments), and 203,880 (-9%) were students pursuing the popular OPT work programme.
  • Top places of origin are China (317,300), India (167,580), and South Korea (39,490). Chinese enrolments fell by 15%, Indian enrolments by 13%, South Korean numbers by 21%, and Saudi Arabian numbers by 23%. The significant declines from South Korea and Saudi Arabia were primarily felt at the non-degree level.
  • Chinese and Indian students make up 53% of all international enrolments.
  • 54% of international students are in STEM fields, primarily in engineering (21%) and math and computer science (20%).
  • International enrolment declines were steepest at associate degree-granting colleges (-24%) and master’s universities (-23%) and less pronounced at doctoral universities (-13%) and undergraduate (bachelor’s) colleges (-14%).

2021/22 appears to be a lot more promising.

According to the 2021 Fall Snapshot survey, 73 percent of overseas students enrolled in US higher education institutions are studying in a hybrid model, 27 percent are only learning in person, and only 1% are completely studying online. International students are enrolled in on-campus classes at 65 percent of the universities.

The screenshot below illustrates how much has changed in a year in terms of how overseas students pursue their higher education in the United States. This is due in major part to the relaxation of border controls in many nations, including the United States, which is in turn due to the global distribution of the COVID vaccination.

Mode of delivery in US higher education, fall 2020 and fall 2021. Source: IIE’s 2021 Fall International Student Enrolment Snapshot

Source: ICEF

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