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US Universities Brace for Big Decline in International Students

A passer-by skates past an entrance to the Tsai Performance Center on the campus of Boston University.

Universities preparing for big declines in international enrollment and revenues will be further depressed by a federal decision to strip students of their visa status if they do not attend college and university in person this fall.

“Active students currently in the United States enrolled in such programs must depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction, to remain in lawful status,” stated the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in a release Monday.

“If not, they may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings.”

“Today’s guidance ... is harmful to international students and puts their health and well-being and that of the entire higher education community at risk,” stated Esther Brimmer, executive director and CEO of NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

“The COVID-19 pandemic in the United States remains unpredictable, and institutions should be trusted and be given the authority to make decisions that are right for their campuses based on their local circumstances,” Brimmer said in a statement.

FILE - Graduating seniors of Brophy College Preparatory wait their turn to walk down the aisle to the stage individually during Diploma Days due to the coronavirus in Phoenix, Arizona, May 28, 2020.
FILE - Graduating seniors of Brophy College Preparatory wait their turn to walk down the aisle to the stage individually during Diploma Days due to the coronavirus in Phoenix, Arizona, May 28, 2020.

“This is terrifying,” tweeted Aaron Kirkpatrick from Northern Ireland, a Ph.D. candidate at Baylor University in Texas. “I couldn’t go home to renew the F1 because embassies are shut due to the pandemic. If I’m made to leave, I’ll likely not be allowed reentry again.”

In May, a report from the Institute of International Education (IIE) showed that 88% of nearly 600 respondent institutions anticipate international student enrollment decreasing in the 2020-2021 academic year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Seventy percent of those institutions said they anticipate that some international students will not return to their campus in person in fall 2020. Three-quarters are giving students the option to defer in-person enrollment to later in the fall or spring 2021.

And while many colleges and universities are scrambling to devise a strategy that will bring students back to school while keeping them safe and healthy, half indicated they plan to offer students online enrollment in the fall.

If ICE enforces their statement, those students will have to withdraw.

“The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will still provide flexibility to schools and nonimmigrant students,” the U.S Student and Exchange Program stated in a follow-up release from ICE. “But as many institutions across the country reopen, DHS must resume the carefully balanced protections implemented by federal regulations.”

Fear of COVID-19

The American Council on Education (ACE) estimates that enrollment will drop 15% for the next academic year, including a projected decline of 25% for international students.

FILE - A student takes classes online with his companions using the Zoom app at home.
FILE - A student takes classes online with his companions using the Zoom app at home.

Soo Hyun Kim, a South Korean international student at George Mason University, says he plans to take courses fully online from South Korea because there are still potential dangers of the coronavirus and because he feels he will not be able to experience U.S. life to the full extent.

“Some reasons as to why international students go to U.S. universities is because they want to experience American education, culture and social life,” he told VOA.

“My parents are afraid because the cases are still growing, but they understand that the college is making an effort to have a better and safe environment,” said Vitor Lacerda Siqueira, a Brazilian international student at Stetson University in Florida. The physics major said he plans to return to campus this fall.

“As I have laboratory classes and choir, the education I get from an online format is not the best I can have,” the incoming sophomore said. “Also, the bad connection I have at home makes it hard for me to access the content. I would prefer to request a leave of absence than having online classes again.”

Plummeting revenues

The anticipated decline in foreign students is also expected to have a huge financial toll on U.S. higher education.

International students comprise 5% of higher education enrollment in the United States, according to a study done by the Brookings Institution, and revenue from tuition and fees totals $2.5 billion. This price tag is so high for a few reasons: At U.S. public universities, international students pay nonresident tuition rates.

FILE - A sign on the empty campus of Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont, March 11, 2020.
FILE - A sign on the empty campus of Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont, March 11, 2020.

Additionally, those coming from outside of the U.S. for higher education opportunities receive less financial aid than domestic students.

A NAFSA survey indicated that the coronavirus may cost the United States $3 billion in fall 2020 because of declines in international student enrollment from COVID-19.

The decline, according to the ACE, is expected to be a revenue loss of $23 billion for institutions.

“COVID-19 puts higher-ed finances at risk. For some universities, revenue shortfalls are going to be a pain. For other universities, the shortfall may be a disaster,” wrote Dick Startz, professor of economics at the University of California, Santa Barbara in an analysis report on Brookings’ Brown Center Chalkboard.

“First, nearly every school is at least at some risk of significant financial losses. Second, the risks are incredibly different at different schools. Many schools face difficulties. If things turn out really bad, some schools face closures.”

Visa restrictions

Education experts say recent H1-B visa restrictions will also deter more foreign students from seeking an international education in the United States, and international students have been a revenue stream for many colleges and universities.

H1-B, J and other temporary work visas were suspended until the end of this year by the Trump administration. More than 188,000 H1-B visas and over 350,000 J-1 visas were issued in the United States for fiscal year 2019.

While the halt impacts new applicants and not existing visa holders, the combination of the latest policy issued by ICE for the fall semester and the earlier H1-B edict will decrease attendance by foreign students drastically.

Visa restrictions have also been placed on Chinese students who use the Optional Practical Training program, which allows international students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields the opportunity to “work for a U.S. employer” for three years, and for students in non-STEM fields, one year, while “staying on their student visas.”

Participation in OPT has surged in recent years, as in 2017, when “a record 276,500 foreign graduates received work permits under the OPT program, up from 257,100 in 2016,” according to the Pew Research Center.

International universities see declines

Universities outside of the United States are also expected to see massive monetary losses because of decreases in international students trying to avoid travel and COVID-19.

FILE - University student Piera Gerry is back home with her parents where she continues her studies online after schools closed due to the coronavirus outbreak, in Berkhamsted, England, April 5, 2020.
FILE - University student Piera Gerry is back home with her parents where she continues her studies online after schools closed due to the coronavirus outbreak, in Berkhamsted, England, April 5, 2020.

London Economics released a report on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on university finances in April and stated that Britain would see a reduction of approximately 14,000 students for the upcoming academic year.

Canada, which has been more attractive to some international students than the U.S. because of its easier immigration pathway, is also expecting the number of international students to decline because of the pandemic.

The Royal Bank of Canada reported in a study last month that new international student permits dropped by 45% this March and stated travel restrictions and visa-processing delays would likely slow international student arrivals in the future.

A report from the Australian Population Research Institute said thousands of student visa holders are likely to defer or delay their studies in Australia, limiting overseas student revenue for Australian universities.

The international education sector contributed $39 billion to the Australian economy in 2019, according to Universities Australia, a higher education advocacy group.

The continual growth of international students studying in the United States contributed $41 billion and supported 458,290 jobs to the U.S. economy during the 2018-2019 academic year, according to NAFSA.

The United States hit an all-time high of 1,095,299 international students, mostly from China, in 2019, according to the Institute of International Education. But the rate of growth showed flattening for two years prior.

"With a global competition for talent, we must ensure that students feel safe and can attain the best education and experience possible here in the United States. Unfortunately, this administration continues to enact policies which only increase the barriers to studying here, and that’s a serious concern,” Brimmer of NAFSA stated.

“At a time when new international student enrollment is in decline, our nation risks losing global talent with new policies that hurt us academically and economically.”

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