Colleges and universities in the United States attract more than a million international students a year. Higher education is one of America’s top service exports, generating $42 billion in revenue. But the money spigot is closing. The pandemic, visa restrictions, rising tuition and a perception of poor safety in America have driven new international student enrollment down by a jaw-dropping 72 percent.
August 3, 2021
American higher education has long prided itself on being a brilliant beacon, attracting generations of students from around the globe.
They come for education and for opportunity. Many, having established ties to America, return home to take roles in academe, business, or government. No country has trained more foreign leaders than the United States.
Others stay, becoming a critical part of the American talent infrastructure. They fill our faculty offices, our laboratories, our boardrooms. One in five entrepreneurs who founded start-ups in the United States is an immigrant — and three-quarters of them first came to America as students. While they were enrolled, they brought diversity and millions in revenue to their campuses.
But that beacon, bright for decades, has begun to dim. The Trump administration, with its America First policies and bellicose rhetoric, sent the message that foreign students were not welcome. Then the Covid-19 pandemic shut the country’s borders. Last year’s decline in international students — the U.S. government reported an 18-percent drop in overall student-visa holders and a 72 percent decrease in new enrollments in 2020 — is without precedent.
America’s light was already flickering, however. Today’s students have more options than ever before, around the world and at home. Like their U.S. classmates, they question the cost of college and the return on an American degree. They worry about whether they’d be safe in this country. And for many international students, it’s tough to imagine a future in America because immigration policy gives little preference to those who study here.
A new leader in the White House and the country’s slow emergence from Covid isolation may begin to reverse the most recent declines in international-student enrollments. But shifts in the landscape that began before 2016 are harder to adjust for.
If America ultimately cedes its place as the world leader in international education, that will affect diplomacy, the economy, and the health of colleges and universities nationwide.
This moment represents a “rupture,” says Stephanie K. Kim, a scholar of international and comparative education at Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies.
A rupture can be a break that allows for fresh starts and innovation, she says. Or it could be the start of a downward spiral. “If it is a rupture,” Kim says, “I don’t know if we’ll be able to see its shape until we have hindsight.”
International education is changing, swiftly and in real time, and America’s signal has become weaker. Will U.S. colleges be able to adjust before it goes dark?
The draw of American colleges
The chief motivation for American colleges to attract students from abroad has shifted over time: It began as an act of benevolence, became a tool of diplomacy, then evolved into an important part of their business model.
International students have been coming to the United States for more than two centuries. Francisco de Miranda, who went on to lead a Venezuelan independence movement, studied at Yale University in 1784. In 1854 a Chinese student named Yung Wing graduated with honors from Yale, where he played football, sang in the choir, and won awards for English composition. When Yung returned to China, he persuaded the ruling Qing dynasty to send more students abroad, to help modernize the country.
American universities were training grounds for China and other countries eager to jump-start economic and social development. Many of the early students were sponsored by American missionaries. Later, philanthropic groups, including the Carnegie and Rockefeller Foundations, supported students and scholars coming to the United States.
American universities were a refuge from fascism before and during World War II, and as the Cold War heated up, higher education increasingly played a role in diplomacy through efforts like the Fulbright Program. “I hope while you are here you’ll have an opportunity to gain more knowledge of us, our good things and our bad,” President John F. Kennedy told foreign students at a reception on the South Lawn of the White House in 1962.
Competition with the Soviet Union resulted in a vast infusion of government spending for universities and research, and the resulting advances in science and technology helped draw talented students from around the globe, eager for the opportunity to study in elite labs with leading academics.
Those students were often at the graduate level, but the most recent wave of international students is younger. They are the children of an ascendant middle class, and they come disproportionately from a single country, China.
Many factors, on both sides of the ocean, fueled the rapid international-enrollment growth of the past decade and a half. Chinese parents wanted the best education to help their children get ahead in an overheated economy, and there weren’t nearly enough seats at the country’s top universities to accommodate the nearly eight million high-school graduates each year. Many families had the means to send their children abroad. Others could turn to two sets of grandparents to help pay for tuition, travel, and test prep, thanks to China’s one-child policy.
After restricting student visas in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. government changed policies to make it easier for foreign students to come and study. American colleges — reeling from the steep budget cuts of the Great Recession and, in many parts of the country, facing declining numbers of high-school graduates — welcomed this unexpected shot of revenue. It was a marriage of supply and demand.
This was a shift from the first century of international exchange, says Liping Bu, a professor of history at Alma College who has written a history of international students in the United States. She herself came to America as a student from China, on a full scholarship to Smith College.
“When I came here, in the ’80s, foreign students were sponsored by these universities. And now it’s foreign students’ money in the universities that provide scholarships for American students,” Bu says. “This is how the world has changed.”
International students not only helped hold tuition down and make up for lost state support. They also provided a financial windfall for college towns and for the American economy as a whole. The U.S. Department of Commerce estimates international students’ financial impact is $44 billion a year.
Higher education has become one of the United States’ largest service exports, equal to annual exports of soybeans, corn, and textile supplies combined. From 2006, when enrollments from abroad began to climb, to their all-time high, of nearly 1.1 million in 2018, the number of international students in America more than doubled.
But every wave has to crest.
Covid, of course, was more crash than crest. When campuses shut down, in March 2020, international students scattered, some staying in the United States and others studying remotely from around the globe.
With travel restrictions and consular closures, new international students were largely locked out of America. Actual enrollments of new international students fell by an estimated 43 percent, less sharply than the decline in student visas. That’s because some members of the fall-2020 freshman class began college from outside the United States, online from their home countries. A few colleges set up remote campuses for students stuck abroad; Pennsylvania State University taught more than 500 students in Shanghai, on the campus of East China Normal University.
Those stopgap measures helped cushion the blow — somewhat. In 2020 the export value of higher education fell by $9.5 billion, a 20-percent drop.
But Covid could have additional, and potentially longer-term, impacts on international students. The United States earned low marks globally for its handling of the pandemic, further shaking the confidence of families that American colleges could keep their children safe.
The pandemic also led to a rise in anti-Asian racism and crime. Some elected officials, most notably former President Donald J. Trump, openly blamed China for Covid.
Seventy percent of international students on American campuses are from Asia, like Lily Cao, who graduated from Mount Holyoke College this spring. Cao first came to the United States from China at age 14 to attend high school, and she had grown to feel at home in the country in which she had spent a third of her life.
Covid changed that. Months into the pandemic, she was confronted in the grocery store by a woman who accused her of spreading the coronavirus. “Covid has really been the trigger point where I felt like, Oh, I might get discriminated against,” she says.
Now, after spending her senior year back home in China, taking classes remotely, she is eager to return for a graduate program in nutrition and public health at Tufts University. What happens after graduate school, though, is less clear. The pandemic affected her views of America and her future here. “Before then I had such good impressions of the U.S.,” she says. “In the past, while I was still in high school, I have thought about staying in the U.S. and continuing my career and getting a job in the U.S. But right now, after Covid, I am not sure anymore.”
The coronavirus is not the only thing that has affected the climate for Chinese students. In Washington, there is growing wariness of America’s chief geopolitical rival, and colleges, with their research partnerships and openness to Chinese students and scholars, are seen as a weak link, vulnerable to academic espionage.
Early in his presidency, Trump had considered a ban on all Chinese students. In his final year, he placed tough restrictions on Chinese graduate students and canceled Fulbright exchanges to mainland China and Hong Kong.
Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center, says some concerns are legitimate. American colleges have not always done a good job of being transparent about their foreign ties. The Chinese government does have an agenda.
Still, Daly says, security fears shouldn’t outweigh the good of having Chinese students at American colleges. “The list of demonstrable harms done to the U.S. to date through American universities is thin,” he says. “And that needs to be weighed against the tremendous benefit in every field of endeavor.”
In particular, suspicions of Chinese students, most of whom have no access to sensitive research, are misplaced, Daly says.
International students as a whole felt the sting of policy decrees over the four years of the Trump administration. The government threatened to cancel a work program for foreign graduates, turned away students at the border, and tried to require international students to take in-person classes at the height of the pandemic as a way to pressure colleges to reopen. In his first week in office, Trump issued an order barring travelers from several primarily Muslim countries, stranding students and scholars abroad; on his way out the door, he tried to impose strict time limits on student visas.
Yes, “the last year has been rough,” says Kim, the Georgetown professor, who is writing a book on international-student mobility, but the waters were already choppy. “The last four years have been contentious.”
But some experts think there has been too much focus on the “two p’s” — the pandemic and politics — and not enough attention to some of the cracks in the foundation that threaten the stability of international enrollments.
One of those weaknesses is the overreliance on China, which accounts for a third of all international students in the United States. If the influx of Chinese students seemed like a godsend to struggling colleges during the Great Recession, it now leaves them overexposed, like an investor who has put all his savings into a single hot stock.
College officials have acknowledged the problem, but they haven’t figured out how to break the cycle. “It’s a lot harder work to recruit 500 students from six different countries than 500 students from China,” says Adrian Mutton, founder and chief executive of Sannam S4, which advises colleges recruiting and working overseas, particularly in Asia. Of the pandemic, he says, “if this isn’t the wake-up call to do things differently, to diversify, I don’t know what is.”
Interviews with colleges’ admissions directors and China-based counselors suggest that the days of double-digit increases in Chinese enrollments are over. The Common App this spring reported that its applications from China had declined by 18 percent.
Roger Brindley is vice provost for global programs at Penn State, where international undergraduate enrollments are down 9 percent for the fall, almost entirely because of China. He says that Chinese students may also find homegrown options more appealing than they were a few years ago. China has been investing heavily in its universities.
“Five years from now, it wouldn’t surprise me if China is still No. 1” among countries sending students to the United States, Brindley says. “But it would surprise me if China is still 35 percent of all international students.”
Some colleges have avoided overdependence on China by careful planning or through historical ties to other regions. Latin America is a top source of international students for Loyola University in New Orleans, dating to the city’s days as headquarters of the United Fruit Company. “When I hear colleagues talking about the trends,” says Harvey Werner, director of undergraduate and international admissions, “I always feel like I’m outside looking in.”
Being the odd man out is now an advantage. Loyola has longstanding relationships with Latin American high schools and credibility with parents and counselors there. Its reach is regional, further insulating the university from social, political, or economic upheaval in a single country, Werner says.
The challenge of new markets is that few countries have both the demand for higher education and the ability to pay that China has. African countries, for example, have a youth population that far outpaces the capacity of local universities, but few families can afford an expensive American degree.
At the same time, many colleges can’t afford to lose the steady revenue stream that Chinese students provide. Studies have shown that as states spent less of their budgets on higher education, international enrollments rose. At public flagships and research-intensive institutions, a 10-percent decrease in state appropriations over a decade and a half was accompanied by a 17-percent increase in foreign enrollments.
“You can see a clear connection there — when state governments decided to spend less money with higher education, universities turned to foreign students, especially undergraduate and master’s students as a source of revenue,” says Breno Braga, a labor economist at the Urban Institute and an author of one of the studies.
Just as international students helped colleges emerge from the last economic downturn, the institutions may be looking to their tuition dollars to deal with a post-Covid budget squeeze. Don’t count on it, says Chris R. Glass, a professor of educational leadership and higher education at Boston College. “The business model is broken. These last few years, they were the Roaring Twenties or the Tech-Bubble Nineties.”
The American Dream questioned
China has traditionally favored the United States as a destination: More than half of its students who study abroad come here, according to data from the Chinese Ministry of Education.
Shi Wang, a college counselor in Beijing, says his students are now considering alternatives, such as universities in Hong Kong, Japan, and Singapore. Those places share educational styles and cultural similarities with China. They’re also convenient, a short flight home if there’s another pandemic or public-health scare.
“I think the parents, this is the first time for them to sit down and think very objectively and not to be influenced by other things, to see how many good universities there are in the world,” says Wang.
Emily Dobson has a name for that trend of students applying to colleges around the globe. She calls it the “geoswerve.”
Dobson is a college counselor in Brazil, but she is originally from California. She moved to Brazil to teach English 16 years ago and stayed. Now she advises students and started a network of counselors across Latin America.
Over the past few years, she’s seen diversity in where her students apply. “We’re not seeing the future we used to see here,” she says of the United States. “Still love you. A few of you are on our list. But you know, we’re going to go to other schools.”
“The American Dream idea,” she says, “is being questioned more.”
Dobson’s students have ended up in many places; they go to destinations that have historically attracted many international students, such as Britain and Canada, and to ones that haven’t, such as Qatar, Japan, and the Czech Republic. Many are still getting an English-taught degree — the number of English-language degree programs offered by universities in non-English-speaking countries has exploded, says Edwin van Rest, chief executive and co-founder of Studyportals, a search platform for international students. Twenty years ago, there were only about 500; now Studyportals lists more than 17,000.
Of her current crop of advisees, Dobson estimates 90 percent will apply to colleges in multiple countries. The pandemic accelerated the shift. With the pivot to online recruitment, her students were able to connect with college representatives from around the world who might not have traveled to Brazil for in-person admissions trips.
Students’ reasons for considering non-American alternatives vary. Some are driven to find the right academic fit or are seeking specialized majors. In some countries, it’s possible to earn an undergraduate degree in just three years. Others turn away from America because they fear gun crime.
Liping Bu, the Alma College historian, says the first question that parents of prospective international students typically ask is, Is it safe? Around the world, she says, “American gun violence has become the symbol of American society.”
Another concern is affordability. Not only do American colleges charge higher tuition than their counterparts almost anywhere else in the world, but at public institutions, international students often pay out-of-state rates that are two or three times as high as those of their local classmates. Foreign students, who must prove they have the funds for their education in order to get a visa, face other expenses in studying overseas, including travel, housing, and exchange rates that often favor the U.S. dollar.
Students and their families typically shoulder that cost — nearly 60 percent of international students use personal or family funds as their primary means of paying for their studies. At the undergraduate level, that share is even higher, with more than eight in 10 relying on personal savings or borrowing.
The dynamic is different, of course, at the Ph.D. level, where students receive stipends for teaching or research.
As a result, foreign students can be especially susceptible to economic shifts, including those caused by Covid. Globally, 54 million people fell out of the middle class during the pandemic, according to the Pew Research Center. Of that number, 60 percent were in India, the second-largest source of international students on American campuses.
If for some students an American degree is now out of reach, for others it was never affordable, says Rajika Bhandari, an international-education expert and author of a forthcoming book, America Calling: A Foreign Student in a Country of Possibility. “Access to higher education has never been equal, and this could be a reversion to even more inequity.”
Finding work after school
Some students and families are also questioning the value of an American degree. In countries that send large numbers of students to the United States, including South Korea and, increasingly, China, a foreign credential may not help graduates stand out in a competitive job market as much as they had hoped. A study by Mingyu Chen, then a postdoctoral research fellow at Princeton University, found that Chinese graduates of American colleges were less likely than those who attended local universities to get callbacks from Chinese employers — even if they had attended a more-selective institution.
But an alternative path for graduates — obtaining work in the United States — comes with its own hurdles.
Bhandari says it can be easy to pin the blame for immigration problems on Trump — his administration threatened Optional Practical Training, the work program for international graduates, and used Covid to place new restrictions on work visas, including those for researchers and scientists. But the challenges have long been there.
This year, there were more than 308,000 applications for just 85,000 H-1B skilled-worker visas. Yet the cap on such visas has remained the same for more than 15 years.
Part of the problem with the current system, Bhandari and others argue, is that international study is largely viewed as separate from employment-based immigration, despite the desire of many students to gain work experience in addition to earning a degree. In fact, students must promise in their visa application that they are coming to the United States only for academic study, a requirement President Biden has proposed revoking.
That’s in marked contrast with competitor countries, such as Australia and Canada, that have created a track from college to work and permanent residency. Britain last year introduced a global talent visa that fast-tracks people in in-demand fields for immigration. Universities in those countries frequently promote the ability to work after graduation when they recruit international students.
“When students go abroad, they are not just thinking about a few years of study — it’s an entire pathway,” Bhandari says. “Unless there’s a clear embrace and acceptance of that, we’re not going to fix those problems.”
Still, higher education continues to be a pipeline for talent to the United States. A paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research this year documented the “dominant role” colleges play in attracting students who go on to become entrepreneurs.
Richard Florida, the urbanist author and professor of economic analysis and policy at the University of Toronto, calls colleges “the new Ellis Islands.”
The pipeline also funnels smart foreign graduates toward academe. Eight in 10 international Ph.D. students in science and engineering stay in the United States for their first job or postdoctoral appointment.
They are students like Divyansh Kaushik, a fourth-year graduate student in computer science at Carnegie Mellon University. The United States offered him academic and research opportunities he could never have had if he had stayed in India for graduate school.
“There is a huge difference between the kind of work I’m doing here versus the kind of work I saw the Ph.D. students doing there. It’s not that people have any less intellect or talent — it’s that there’s a whole ecosystem,” Kaushik says. “It’s well known that talent attracts talent. So the best students apply to U.S. universities.”
Kaushik is a top student. His papers, written with faculty mentors, have won international honors, and after he interned at Facebook last summer, the company asked him to stay on for the rest of the year to continue his research. He was recently awarded an Amazon graduate research fellowship that will fund his studies and work on human-AI interaction.
Kaushik seems like precisely the sort of stellar student that American companies and universities — he hasn’t decided which path to take — would be clamoring to hire. And he has put down roots here. Active in Carnegie Mellon’s Graduate Student Assembly, he was among a small group of grad students who briefed President Biden’s transition team on policies affecting scientific research and international students. Closer to home, he’s Carnegie Mellon’s representative on a neighborhood-redevelopment project in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood. On his personal website, just underneath his research projects, he lists his favorite coffee shops near campus.
Still, Kaushik is not sure if he’ll stay in America after graduation. “Given that there are so many unknowns in the U.S.,” he says, “even if I get a job, I’d still weigh options.”
Experts worry that the lack of a clear future in the United States could make the next generation of Divyansh Kaushiks think twice about studying here in the first place. “We’re the country of the Statue of Liberty, but our policies don’t reflect that sentiment,” says Glass, the Boston College professor, who is editor in chief of the Journal of International Students. “And students know that.”
The loss would be devastating for colleges, particularly at the graduate level and in science and technology disciplines. In 2019, 57 percent of the doctorates awarded in engineering and 56 percent of those in mathematics and computer sciences went to student-visa holders, according to the National Science Foundation.
Certainly, part of the answer is to interest more young Americans, especially women and students of color, in studying in STEM fields. President Biden has also proposed making it easier for international students who earn doctorates in those high-demand disciplines to stay in the United States, effectively stapling a green card to their diploma.
Some groups, such as NAFSA: Association of International Educators, would like Biden to expand the proposal to apply to more students. But even such a modest provision may have trouble winning approval. Biden proposed immigration reform on his first day in office, in January. To date, there has been little congressional action.
Lacking a strategy
Another advantage other countries’ universities enjoy is a coordinated national strategy for attracting international students. In the United States, it’s pretty much every college for itself.
Right after last November’s election, Samantha Power, a Harvard professor, wrote an essay in Foreign Affairs urging Biden to give a major speech declaring his commitment to international students and to working with American colleges to increase their numbers.
“American universities have a special place in the global imagination,” wrote Power, who went on to join the Biden administration as head of the United States Agency for International Development. “It is hard to think of a more cost-effective way for Biden to reach global populations concerned about the direction of the United States than by celebrating the fact that the country is again welcoming bright young minds from around the world.”
Biden has yet to deliver that speech, but last month, the U.S. Departments of State and Education announced they would pursue a coordinated national policy to welcome foreign students and scholars to American campuses, encourage American study abroad, and support global research. “As U.S. federal agencies involved in different aspects of international education, we commit to undertaking actions to support a renewed focus on international education,” they said in a joint statement.
Biden’s break with the politics and the rhetoric of the past administration may signal a renewed openness to international students.
As the country emerges from Covid, history is on the side of rebounding enrollments, says Allan E. Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education, pointing to trends that followed nearly a dozen earlier pandemics, including SARS, zika, and swine flu.
“There’s a surge of new students and pent-up demand,” Goodman says. “There’s no reason to think that the dynamic would be different this time.”
Indeed, an analysis of U.S. Department of State data shows that student-visa issuance is returning to pre-pandemic levels. In May and June, two of the three busiest months for student-visa applications, almost 117,000 visas were approved, or 93 percent of the share of student visas issued in the same months of 2019. So far in the first half of 2021, student-visa issuances are 83 percent of the number authorized in the same period in 2019.
But that demand is, in many ways, already built in. Before Covid hit, students were in the pipeline for overseas study; in countries such as China, students planning to go abroad often opt out of the national curriculum in high school, a decision that makes them ineligible for admission to local universities and leaves them with little choice but to continue with their plans.
The real question, says Shi Wang, the college counselor in Beijing, is what will happen with international admissions two or three years from now, when students who made choices about their future in the midst of the pandemic graduate from high school.
Still, if Covid brought disruption, it may have also ushered in innovation.
For years, there has been talk that online learning will change international-student mobility. It hasn’t happened because of hesitancy on both sides — American colleges and professors were uncomfortable with the idea of delivering their courses halfway around the world to students they had never met, while families and employers distrusted program quality.
Now there are no more excuses, says Alex Usher, an international-education consultant based in Toronto. “Every single professor knows how to do remote learning.”
Global student surveys by StudyGroup, a company that operates pathways and preparatory programs for international students, found that two-thirds of prospective students were open to hybrid or digital programs.
Students also were interested in studying for a foreign degree on a campus in their home country. More than half of the Chinese and Malaysian students surveyed by StudyGroup said they would consider that option.
Those are among many potential approaches, says Penn State’s Brindley. Colleges could open branch campuses abroad or work in consortia with overseas partner institutions. They could consider models in which students fulfill general-education requirements in their home countries, and come to the United States only for courses in their major. Or colleges might offer accelerated programs that compress a curriculum into a shorter period. “We do need to create a menu,” Brindley says.
Those changes could redefine what it means to be an international student: The education itself would be mobile, not necessarily the student.
But such alternatives come with drawbacks. Not having international students on campus for four years or more would bring colleges less revenue. Under current visa policy, students wouldn’t have the same options to gain work experience, and those programs might not serve as effective pipelines for talent to America. For foreign students interested as much in American culture as what happens in the classroom, there would be fewer opportunities for cultural immersion. And American students, who don’t study abroad in large numbers, would miss out on the globalizing effect of having classmates and even roommates from overseas.
Andrew Ullman, a co-founder of University Bridge, a company that runs community-college pathways for international students, says that while technology has the potential to reach students interested in an American education who could never afford to study here, he is skeptical such approaches could supplant traditional student mobility. “Just because I had an awesome summer road trip to Oregon with my family last year doesn’t mean I never want to go to Italy,” he says.
Mojin Yu came to the United States six years ago to attend the University of Rochester, where she majored in psychology and digital media, drawn to a curriculum that allowed her to follow her intellectual interests, rather than the rigid tracking of the Chinese educational system. Outside of classes, she worked as a peer mentor and joined an a cappella group, its sole international member.
After finishing her bachelor’s degree, Yu went to the University of Washington at Seattle. This spring she earned a master’s in human-centered design and engineering, and now she’s looking for a job at a company that will sponsor her to work in the United States; she hopes to enter the visa lottery.
These past years haven’t been easy. “I’ve realized it’s not as shiny and bright as I thought it would be,” Yu says of studying in America.
But not only does Yu want to stay in the United States; this fall her younger sister is coming here. She will be a freshman at UCLA.
Good for the globe
Glass, the Boston College professor, recently analyzed the past two decades’ worth of global student-mobility statistics from the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, ending just before the pandemic struck. He visualized the data as clusters. In the beginning, there were just two central clusters: One represented the biggest sending countries — China, India, Japan, South Korea — and the other the primary destinations for students — Australia, Britain, and the United States.
Over time, the picture has changed. Even as the overall number of students studying abroad has climbed, to nearly 6 million from 2 million, new clusters have emerged and grown, linking countries with regional, cultural, or linguistic affinities. Students from former Soviet republics head to Russia or Turkey; from Latin America, they go to Spain. South Africa draws students from its sub-Saharan neighbors.
“What we’re seeing is more countries exchanging more students at more even rates,” Glass says. “It may not be good for the U.S., but it is for the world as a whole.”
Rather than one main cluster, a lone beacon attracting students from around the globe, there are now dozens of smaller lights, pulling students in.
Sasha AslanianKarin Fischer
Betsy Towner Levine
Deputy managing editor at The Chronicle
Support for this program comes from the Spencer Foundation and Lumina Foundation.