International student enrollment decline could hurt U.S. universities and economy

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Posted at 9:41 AM, Aug 05, 2022

DENVER, Colo. — The pandemic forced a 15% drop in international student enrollment across the country, and even without travel restrictions, students aren’t coming back as quickly as many would expect.

Administrators and economists have found his enrollment drop could create financial problems for universities and for the U.S. economy.

For international students still in the United States, this drop in enrollment comes as a surprise but makes sense.

“Definitely, COVID was a huge factor. But I do think, too, maybe if students had more like financial support, you know, or more incentives, maybe more extended OPT [visa] options…maybe more students would be attracted to coming to the U.S.,” said Zoe Nassimoff, an international student studying music.

Nassimoff came all the way from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to find her version of the American Dream.

“I was just really attracted by the music industry in America overall,” Nassimoff.

She enrolled at the University of Colorado Denver and started finding the opportunities she’d hoped for.

“Back home, it's really hard to make it as a musician,” said Nassimoff. “And that's not what I want for my life. You know, I want to be a full-time musician.”

Before the pandemic, Nassimoff was one of nearly one million international students studying across the United States, but that number took a deep dive as soon as COVID hit.

“What we saw is a 45% decline in new student enrollment across the United States,” said Alana Jones, the associate vice chancellor of International Affairs at the University of Colorado Denver, of enrollment during the 2020 school year.

Travel restrictions, visa difficulties, and safety concerns kept international students out. Even with restrictions lessened now, a reportby the Institute of International Education found that in the fall of 2021, the United States only saw a 4% increase in international student enrollment.

To Jones, that’s a big concern.

“International students at almost every university pay a higher tuition level than domestic students pay,” said Jones. “That can really impact the budgets and bottom lines of universities.”

On top of shrinking the university budget, lower enrollment could increase costs for domestic students, and impact our economy.

“We're losing the opportunity for those students to be in our labor market,” said Jones.

Angelica Bahl, a professor at the Metropolitan State University of Denver, said these labor market losses are certainly contributing to the hiring dilemmas many employers have been and are still facing.

“So, we see the hospitality, restaurants and the services struggling because they have a shortage of workers, and in one of the big contributions of this is international students,” said Bahl. “It's a big contributor of this issue we have right now in the, in the economic development.”

In addition to providing many workers for hospitality jobs, 54% of all international students study in STEM fields, like engineering or computer science, so they’re bringing high skilled labor to the U.S. job market. Jones wants to get those students back before they study somewhere else.

“Canada has been a competitor to the United States in terms of attracting international students,” said Jones.

Nassimoff agreed, “I did look at Canada. I looked in Australia and New Zealand. So, there are like other opportunities."

The question now is: how does the United States get more international students back?

Administrators and students are advocating for several changes:

  • Allowing more online courses and options so students can stay in their home countries. This was not widely available pre-pandemic, but it is becoming more common.
  • Streamlining the visa process.
  • Providing housing assistance.

“There’s a lot of work to be done,” said Bahl.

But more than financial input, Bahl, Nassimoff and Jones hope people see that the cultural value these students bring is far more valuable.

“For us to be successful in a globalized society, in a global world, we need to have experience engaging with people from around the world,” said Jones.

“Just connecting with different people and building a rich like cultural background or cultural self, that's definitely going to help the country grow,” said Nassimoff.

To read the latest Open Doors report from the Institute of International Education on international student enrollment, click HERE.