As a new school year begins in the United States, institutions of higher education are voicing optimism that international student numbers are bouncing back given an increase in applications for the 2022-2023 school year.
The Institute of International Education (IIE), in a report published in June, said U.S. colleges saw an increase in applications for admission after seeing significantly fewer new international student enrollments in 2020 and 2021.
Does it mean international students are returning in numbers to the U.S.?
“I definitely say that is true. Absolutely,” IIE Co-President Jason Czyz told VOA. He said IIE found the biggest factor in renewed interest in the United States for higher education is the waning of the pandemic.
“Is it entirely done? No. But people around the world are learning to live with it. And as a result of two years, where there was very limited international mobility for students, we're seeing that there's definitely this pent-up demand for international exchange and the U.S., of course, is one of the main markets for that,” he said.
The IIE’s June report cites data from 559 institutions and shows that 65% of them saw an increase in their international student applications for the 2022-2023 academic year across all institutional types, up from 43% one year ago.
An increase in applications, however, does not necessarily mean growth in foreign student enrollment in U.S. higher education institutions.
“It can take some time to obtain a visa to study in the United States,” Czyz said. “But typically, there is some relationship or proportionality between applications and enrollment. And so, we do expect to see international student enrollment take off.”
Prospective international students can only apply for a visa after they have been accepted to an U.S. institution that is approved by ICE’s Student Exchange and Visitor Program. And it takes a minimum of 120 days to for a U.S. consulate to issue a visa to the students. ICE is U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
According to the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), in 2021, there were 1,236,748 international students with F-1 and M-1 visas enrolled in the U.S. In 2020, the year the pandemic began, the number was 1,251,569, a decline of 17.86% from 2019. SEVP is part of ICE.
An F-1 visa is for those attending an academic program or seeking a full-time degree at an U.S. institution, while the M-1 visa covers those enrolled in vocational studies, such as language programs, cosmetology schools, and mechanical studies, among others.
Boundless Immigration, a Seattle-based firm that helps people navigate the U.S. immigration system, released a study September 1 showing that even before the pandemic, international student enrollment had dropped, and that the top reasons for the decline were visa delays and denials, competition from colleges in other countries, and restrictive immigration policies under the Trump administration.
The transition to the Biden administration during the COVID-19 pandemic “makes it hard to delineate pandemic-related effects on international student enrollment from the larger political rhetoric and context in the country,” according to Boundless.
Reports from Boundless and IIE show that visa concerns were among the top reasons for enrollment declines in fall 2019, which was aggravated by U.S. embassies and consulates closing in 2020 because of the pandemic. Their researchers also said colleges and universities reported students enrolling in other countries, such as the United Kingdom, which had eased its process for applicants to access student and work visas and therefore attracted more international students.
International students are important to universities for the economic impact they bring to the U.S.
According to Boundless, international students contributed $28.4 billion to the economy and supported 306,308 jobs during the 2020-2021 academic year. The states with the most international students are California, Florida, New York, Massachusetts and Texas.
“We're still seeing a steep decline, especially from China, which represents more than one-third of international students,” Lynn Pasquerella, president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities, told VOA.
According to the U.S. State Department, it granted 64,261 F-1 visas to Chinese students in the first six months of 2019. In the first six months of 2022, that number was 31,055.
Canada, Singapore, and the U.K. have seen an increase in Chinese student enrollment over the past several years, thanks to several factors including logistical challenges to come to the U.S.
An IIE Open Door report showed that Chinese nationals accounted for 35% of foreigners studying in the U.S. and contributed $15.9 billion in the 2019-2020 academic year before the pandemic drove study abroad numbers down.
F-1 and M-1 students come from more than 224 countries and territories. The top 10 places with the largest number of international students in the United States are Brazil, Canada, China, India, Japan, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
“Given the overreliance that many American institutions have had on international students to meet the bottom line, that's of concern or should be of concern,” Pasquerella said.
Czyz says IIE expects U.S. institutions to be on track for increased numbers of international students. IIE expects to release a new report on international students' applications and enrollments in November.
“We have over 4,000 institutions of higher education in the United States, and the most diverse higher education industry in the world in terms of all different sizes, all different disciplines. The choices in the United States are fantastic, and it's the more diverse higher education community than anywhere else in the world,” he said.