US Colleges, Universities See Sharp Losses During Pandemic

The number of students studying at U.S. colleges and universities sharply declined for the school year that started in September 2020. Experts attribute the decline to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

 A survey of almost 3,000 institutions of higher education in the U.S. showed a 15% decrease in the number of international students attending the 2020-2021 school year.  

The number of new student enrollments was slashed by 45.6%. 

This brings the total of enrolled international students to 914,095, the first time since the 2015-2016 academic year the number fell below the 1 million mark after a decade of swift increases.  

International students comprise 4.6% of the nearly 20 million students enrolled in U.S. higher education.  

The number of students from China and India continue to dominate enrollment at U.S. colleges and universities. Combined, they continue to make up more than half of all the international students in the U.S.  

Students from China declined by 14.8% from the previous year to 317,299, or 34.7% of all international students.  

Students from India declined by 13.2% from the previous year to 167,583, or 18.3% of all international students.  

The pandemic emanated from China in December 2019. International students left the U.S. to return to their home countries for winter break, with many returning to U.S. campuses in January 2020. U.S. campuses locked down in March 2020 around spring break, and all students were sent home, went home or remained in the U.S. as colleges and universities moved classes to online learning.  

The research was conducted by the Institute of International Education (IIE), headquartered in New York, and released November 15. IIE, founded in 1919, is a nonprofit organization funded by the U.S. State Department, and it focuses on “international student exchange and aid, foreign affairs, and international peace and security,” according to its website. Its mission is to “build more peaceful and equitable societies by advancing scholarship, building economies and promoting access to opportunity.”

New York University remained the top destination school for international students among all U.S. colleges and universities. New York state hosted the second-largest amount — 106,894 of the 914,095 total — after first-place California, which hosted 132,758 students. The University of Southern California moved from the third to the fourth slot – overtaken by New York City’s Columbia University – but the University of California campuses in San Diego, Los Angeles, Berkeley, Irvine and Davis were included in the top 18. 

Northeastern University in Boston was the second most-popular school for international students: 15,880 of the 66,273 who attend school in Massachusetts. Another 10,646 international students attended Boston University, located nearby, among at least 10 other colleges and universities in an area known locally as the Miracle Mile.    

IIE also released a more optimistic Fall snapshot that surveyed more than 860 institutions about enrollment for the school year that started in August and September 2021.  

“The findings of the 2021 Fall International Student Enrollment Snapshot reflect the resilience of U.S. higher education institutions and student mobility during the COVID-19 pandemic,” IIE stated. “Higher education institutions report a 68% increase in the number of new international students enrolling for the first time at a U.S. institution in the U.S. or online from abroad, a surge from the 46% decline reported in Open Doors 2021.” 

Of those 860 institutions, 70% reported an increase in new student enrollment, while 10% said enrollment was maintained and 20% reported a decrease.  

As of fall 2021, 99% of colleges and universities that participated in the survey reported holding classes in person or a hybrid of in person and online. At least 65% reported having international students on campus.  

Seventy-seven percent reported spending as much, if not more, on student recruitment compared to previous years.  


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