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Pandemic has led to steep decline in international student enrollment, report says

A person, in silhouette, walks on USC campus in 2018.
USC was the top destination for foreign students in California last year.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

California remains a popular destination for foreign students, but international student enrollment at colleges and universities nationwide declined sharply this fall amid the pandemic, according to data released Monday.

The enrollment of new international students at U.S. higher education institutions was down by 43% this fall, and 90% of campuses reported that foreign students deferred attendance to a future term, according to a report released by the Institute of International Education.

The brief study offered a national snapshot of the effects of COVID-19 on international student enrollment based on data from more than 700 colleges and universities. The fall data were released in conjunction with the institute’s annual Open Doors report, which provides a more comprehensive look at international student enrollment for the 2019-20 school year.

Gaurav Khanna, an assistant professor of economics at UC San Diego, said the last several months had led to significant declines in the number of visas issued to international students, who were stymied by the closure of U.S. consulates and visa restrictions imposed by the federal government amid the pandemic.

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Total international student enrollment at U.S institutions was down 16%, according to the report. Enrollment numbers include students studying remotely at U.S. schools while living outside the country.

The Open Doors report, which looked at foreign student enrollment last year, shows that, before the pandemic, the number of international students at U.S. colleges and universities had dipped by only about 1.8%. That decline was driven in part by decreases in the number of students from countries including India, South Korea and Saudi Arabia, said Mirka Martel, head of research, evaluation and learning for the Institute of International Education.

San Diego County health and education officials drew up a ‘decision tree’ to guide schools in responding to possible COVID-19 cases on campus.

Those prior-year declines, she said, were “likely due to a combination of factors — increased competition for international students, changes in government scholarship programs, expanding educational capacity at home and changing demographics.”

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Still, international students last year made up about 5.5% of higher education enrollment, as they did during the 2018-19 and 2017-18 school years. The U.S. had 1,075,496 international students last year, according to the report.

The total number of foreign students in California fell slightly last year, by 0.7%, though the state remained the most popular destination in the country for foreign students, with 160,592. The top three destination schools were USC, UCLA and UC San Diego, the report said. About 44% of international students in California were from China, about 13% were from India, and about 5% were from South Korea.

USC, which was the No. 1 destination for foreign students in California last year, has also seen a drop in international students this year, said Anthony Bailey, who oversees the Office of Strategic and Global Initiatives at USC.

Last year, the university added about 1,000 international students. This fall, the number of international degree-seeking students is down by 16%.

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“That’s a significant impact,” Bailey said. But he added that he expected those numbers to bounce back next fall.

“What we’re seeing is heavily COVID-related,” he said.


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