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IIE Open Doors 2021: International student numbers on the rebound in the US

While the higher education sector is seeing student enrollments rise, the US will have to address the problem strategically to retain its position as the #1 destination.
BY Skendha Singh |   16-11-2021

BrainGain MagazineCredit: IIE Open Doors

The number of international students enrolled at US higher institutions is on the rebound but the road to complete recovery is likely to be a long one according to the Open Doors data published by the Institute of International Education.

The report surveyed close to 3000 higher education institutions hosting international students. It also expanded the definition of an international student to include those who were studying online either in the US or outside.

In 2020-21, the US hosted 914,095 students – a decline of 15% from the previous year. The decline was marked across all sectors with international student enrollment down at every level, and from every country. While the steepest decline was in students enrolled in non-degree programs (64%), undergraduates (14%) and graduate student numbers (12%) were impacted as well. New international student enrollment was down by 46% in the Fall of 2020.

BrainGain MagazineCredit: IIE Open Doors

China (35%) and India (18%) remained the leading sourcesof international students accounting for a total of 53% of the population. They were followed by South Korea (4%), Canada (3%), and Saudi Arabia (2.4%). However, numbers from these countries also declined significantly with the sharpest drop being from Saudi Arabia (29%) and South Korea (21%).

STEM fields continued to be the most popular choice for international students. Engineering (20%), Maths and Computer Science (20%), were the top two fields of study followed by Business and Management (15.9%).

Snapshot Survey : However, in Fall 2021, the higher education sector is showing signs of recovery according to the snapshot survey conducted by IIE and nine other institutions. The 864 institutions which participated in the survey reported a 68% increase in the number of international student enrollment over last fall.

“The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the international educational landscape on a global scale that had not happened before,” said Mirka Martel, head of research, evaluation, and learning at IIE. “Many international students were not able to travel to the United States due to travel restrictions. U.S. universities showed incredible flexibility in offering many of these students the opportunity to begin or continue their studies online, whether in the United States or from abroad.”

US institutions also said that they were committed to in-person study – with 73% of the snapshot survey participants offering a hybrid model of education.

Universities are also prioritizing international student recruitment with 77% saying that financial support is the same or higher than in the previous years. 56% of the surveyed institutions said that India was the number one priority for recruitment followed by China (51%).

Allan E. Goodman, IIE’s chief executive officer, expressed optimism for the future of the higher education sector in the US. He said that the new data foreshadows an increase and rapid growth in the years ahead.

But the challenges currently facing the sector are not just due to the pandemic. The higher cost of education in the US, the increase in competition from countries like Germany, Canada, and China, and the turbulent political climate, as well as volatile international relations, are all detracting from the viability of the country’s higher education sector. It is also important to note that the international education sector had already been in decline since 2016-17 according to previous Open Doors data.

So, the US has recently been taking steps to revise its position. A landmark step was taken in July 2021 with the Departments of State and Education issuing a joint statement on the country’s renewed commitment to international education.

“It is essential that the federal government support higher education’s efforts to develop a national strategy to increase the number of international students enrolled at U.S. colleges and universities, ensuring that the nation returns to its pre-pandemic, high water mark level set in 2015 of more than 1 million international students,” the statement said.

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