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Are international students returning to the US?

6 min read

Thaís Roberto

International students are an essential sector of the American higher education system, bringing in substantial revenue from international tuition and boosting the local economy.

A report by NAFSA says that in the 2021-2022 academic year, international students contributed $33.8 billion to the American economy and supported over 300,000 jobs.

Now, with us all still recovering from the economic consequences of the pandemic, higher education is quickly bouncing back to its typical numbers following a drop in international enrollment while travel bans were in place.

  • Pandemic decline

The first year of the pandemic was a bleak period for higher education. A 2020 Institute of International Education (IIE) survey reported that nearly 40,000 international students deferred enrollment, resulting in a 43% drop from the previous year.

U.S. higher education saw a decline of over 100,000 international students in 2020 and 2021.

As schools moved to remote learning, some international students had the option to start their studies online instead of deferring. Others, who were already in the country, continued living in the U.S. under lockdown restrictions. But many students could not leave their home countries due to travel restrictions, lack of flights, quarantine protocols, and financial barriers.

In the two years following the COVID-19 breakout, American universities had a 15% decrease in international students from China, the number one source of international students to the U.S.

The pandemic put a significant obstacle to internationalization efforts by universities worldwide. International student enrollment wasn’t the only sector affected - study abroad and exchange programs, as well as international curriculum and partnerships development, were put on hold due to COVID-related restrictions.

Despite the setback, administrators remained optimistic and shared a positive outlook on the future of international higher education. Maria Claudia Soler, a research analyst at the American Council on Education, said, “Institutions are realizing in a way that internationalization goes beyond mobility. The pandemic put us in front of that reality. It really pushed us to think more about what’s going on in other parts of the world and how we can work together to make the world better.”


  • Post-pandemic increase

The new IIE Open Doors report presents a different and much more positive outlook. As education returns to a ‘prepandemic normal’, international student enrollment has increased by 80%, nearly reaching pre-COVID numbers.

With over 260,000 first-time international students enrolled across all academic levels, American universities maintain their prestige and status as one of the top destinations for students worldwide.

As opposed to the large number of students who deferred intake or opted for remote learning, 90% of enrolled international students began their studies in person in the U.S. during the 2021-2022 academic year. International graduate student enrollment increased by 17% and exceeded the undergraduate numbers for the first time.

In total, over 380,000 graduate students were admitted to U.S. universities in the past year, with the most considerable growth happening at the Master’s level. According to IEE, this upswing could be attributed to the large number of students who postponed any study abroad plans because of the pandemic.

Student intakes from India rose 19%, reaching 199,000 and being the second biggest country of origin of international students in the U.S. When combined with China, the number one place of origin, with over 290,000 students in American campuses in 2021-2022, both countries contribute to 52% of the total international student population in the U.S.

  • Other countries on the rise

The United States has long been at the top of the list of study abroad destinations, but recent data has pointed to a slight decline in popularity for the higher education giant.

The State of Student Recruitment report, run annually by Keystone, surveyed 20,000 students from across the globe and found that between 2021 and 2022, the number of students who chose the U.S. as their top study-abroad destination fell from 14.64% to 13.66%.

State of Student Recruitment

Meanwhile, the United Kingdom saw an increase from 15.33% to 17.93% over the same period. Other countries that have been gaining popularity among international students are Germany, Australia, and France, although the U.K., the U.S., and Canada still dominate the top three by a large margin.

One of the possible explanations for the change of preference from international students resides in why they choose to study abroad in the first place. Many students plan to immigrate through their study program, which makes immigration policies and work regulations key factors to be considered.

For these students, countries like Canada, with its more flexible paths to permanent residence, present a more welcoming scenario when compared to countries like the U.S., known for its restrictive immigration regulations.

This change of scenario could result in more significant issues for the American education system and tech market.

According to a 2022 study by the National Foundation for American Policy, international student enrollment in computer science programs at the Master’s level fell 39% between 2016 and 2020. An even bigger drop happened in engineering Master’s programs: in the same period, international student enrollment fell 52%.

  • Opening doors for future students

Overall, U.S. higher education has recovered quickly from the harsh effects of the pandemic that changed the industry in 2020. American universities retain their spots as some of the most prestigious institutions in the world, attracting hundreds of thousands of international students every year.

Still, as students begin to take a more practical and holistic approach when choosing their study abroad destination, American universities might need to help students navigate immigration policies in order to get them on American soil.

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