More international students were coming to US universities — then COVID hit

A dark and gloomy empty classroom.

The number of international students enrolling in US universities looks set to drop as COVID-19 forces campus closures.Credit: Getty

First-time enrolment by international students in US graduate programmes rose by 3.8% between 2018 and 2019, reversing a 2-year decline, finds a report from the US Council of Graduate Schools (CGS). But the council worries that the growth might again reverse as a consequence of COVID-19 restrictions.

The report also found that the past decade has seen rapid growth in the number of students from minority ethnic groups enrolled in US graduate programmes. Yet these groups are still under-represented compared with the general US population. The CGS, which represents nearly 500 institutions in the United States and Canada, and 27 in other nations, surveyed 561 US institutions about their graduate enrolment numbers between 2009 and 2019, breaking down student data by ethnicity, gender, field of study and other demographics.

Global reach

The year-on-year increase in international enrolments is a surprise, says CGS president Suzanne Ortega, particularly in light of visa restrictions imposed by the administration of US President Donald Trump. In July, following a lawsuit by more than 200 universities, including Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institution of Technology, both in Cambridge, the administration scrapped plans to deny visas to international students whose institutions offered only online instruction. Universities have also fought travel bans restricting people from Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States.

Rajika Bhandari, president of the IC3 Institute in Livingston, New Jersey, which trains career counsellors who work at the secondary-school level around the world, says that the overall picture makes prospective international students nervous. “Altogether, it sends this message of innumerable barriers that international students have to surmount in order to study and succeed in the United States,” she says.

Numbers are not yet available for 2020, but the increase seems unlikely to continue. Anecdotally, Ortega says, international enrolment has dropped precipitously this year, and that decline is likely to persist in 2021, even after the exit of the Trump administration and its visa policies. The pandemic is taking its own toll, Ortega says. “In the wake of the effects of COVID-19 and a variety of economic dislocations and social injustices, we have all kinds of reasons to worry,” she says. Students who already faced long waits for visas will have to wait even longer with embassies closed, and the United States’ high coronavirus infection rate could dissuade students from moving there.

“It’s been a very challenging time for international students, even the ones already here,” Bhandari says. Campus closures have left some stranded without housing options. Furthermore, some employers hit by the economic effects of lockdowns have withdrawn job offers that would have allowed graduating international students to stay in the country.

Janet Rutledge, dean of the graduate school at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, says that her institution is offering only virtual education this year. She adds that a large number of international students have enrolled for virtual instruction from their home nations, or have deferred enrolment for a year, an option allowed at many US institutions. The university, Rutledge says, has set up an online peer-mentoring programme to help both categories of student feel welcome.

Wojtek Chodzko-Zajko, dean of the graduate college at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, says that international-student deferrals at his institution have ballooned to more than 2,000 — 20 times the usual number. He is not sure yet how the university will manage if all those students take up their places next year, because there is still too much uncertainty around the pandemic. “I wish I had a crystal ball,” he says.

Domestic representation

The CGS report also found that in 2019, one-quarter of first-time graduate students — excluding international students — were members of minority ethnic groups. By comparison, 39% of the US population belongs to such a group.

Julie Posselt, an education researcher at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, notes the report’s findings that the proportion of Black graduate students saw only a small increase over the past decade, from 5.3% in 2009 to 6.1% in 2019. “It suggests to me the status quo efforts are not cutting it” in terms of recruiting Black students, she says.

The stagnation, Posselt says, is probably due to lack of access to undergraduate research opportunities, especially for students who are already working to support themselves, and a lack of visible Black faculty members and mentors in universities. Bias, discrimination and the decline of race-conscious admissions policies in graduate programmes might also contribute. Research has shown that when institutions eliminate affirmative-action policies, enrolment by graduate students of colour falls, especially in the sciences1.

Rutledge is not surprised that the overall numbers remain low. “There are systems that need to be changed,” she says. “It’s not just about recruiting individuals to come to your programme. It’s about setting up an environment where people can thrive and see a sense of belonging.”

Posselt says that the visa restrictions on students from abroad might encourage universities to try to recruit more domestic students, which could turn out to be beneficial to those from minority ethnic groups in the United States. “Academia hasn’t done a very good job of demonstrating that its culture and environment are going to be supportive of people of colour,” she says — but it might have to change that if it wants to keep student numbers up.

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