After decades of increases, a drop in the number of international students in the United States

Orientation captains at Georgetown University stand together for a photo in front of a statue of school founder John Carroll on Aug. 20. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Michael Blackshire.

The number of international students at U.S. colleges fell during the 2020-21 school year amid the covid-19 pandemic, according to a survey released Monday, but there are initial signs of an uptick this fall.

For more than 70 years, the number of students from abroad at U.S. colleges and universities had been steadily rising, from about 25,000 students in 1948-49 to more than 1 million in recent years.

Then the pandemic hit.

With border closings, flight cancellations and numerous other challenges to global mobility in the 2020-21 academic year, the number of international students dropped 15% from the previous year, to about 914,000. (That number includes students taking online classes from U.S. schools, whether on campus or from overseas.)

The drop was driven by fewer first-time students coming from abroad: The number of new international students fell more than 45% from the 2019-20 school year to the next.

The data from the State Department and the Institute of International Education (IIE) is closely watched, because students from overseas have helped schools become more diverse and cosmopolitan, brought in tuition revenue and increased competition for coveted admissions slots.

Even with the decline, international students made up 5% of all those in U.S. higher education, adding $39 billion to the national economy in 2020.

The impact on U.S. students studying abroad was even more stark. Colleges shuttered their overseas programs and rushed more than 50,000 students home in spring 2020 as borders closed and the virus spread. Then summer programs collapsed, dropping 99%.

Matthew Lussenhop, acting assistant secretary for the bureau of educational and cultural affairs at the State Department, said on a press call that the pandemic affected international education and student mobility around the world, and the United States is no exception. “But throughout the pandemic, the United States remained open and welcoming to international students,” showing dedication and flexibility in supporting them with online programs, deferred enrollment or other measures, he said.

The Open Doors survey included some 3,000 colleges and universities in the United States, and looked at both enrolled students and those here on optional practical training, or temporary work related to their field of study.

More than half of all international students came from China or India.

This fall, snapshot data from a smaller group of universities indicates a slight rebound in the number of international students, with a 4% increase overall.

Some officials said they were optimistic. Anthony Bailey, vice president for strategic and global initiatives at the University of Southern California – one of the U.S. schools with the most international students, hosting 15,000 in the 2020-21 academic year – wrote in an email that the school “witnessed promising recovery in Fall 2021 from last year’s COVID-19 impact.” International student enrollment there is up almost 13% over fall of 2020, he said.

“U.S. colleges and universities remained open and welcoming in face of COVID-19 challenges and are well prepared for what’s ahead,” said IIE’s chief executive, Allan E. Goodman.

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