On university and college campuses, it’s been a back-to-school season like none other. COVID-19 outbreaks have forced entire residence halls and sports teams to quarantine, and, for some institutions, could prompt a premature end to the semester. Other campuses are ghost towns, as instruction has moved completely online. The pandemic has transformed teaching and learning, how research is conducted⎯the very rhythms of campus life.
The contagion’s impact on international education has been especially acute. With closed borders, shuttered consulates and airline restrictions, study abroad and foreign exchange programs have been canceled, while the United States is all but off-limits for new international students. Some have chosen to take classes online, but many have put off their studies. No other demographic group has experienced such deep enrollment declines this fall, according to preliminary data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, an education policy think tank. Estimates suggest as many as a quarter of international students could be missing in action in the 2020 academic year.
The sudden disruption to the pipeline of foreign students has exposed just how dependent American colleges and universities are on international enrollment. According to the ratings agency S&P Global, colleges with large foreign enrollments could be at “material risk” because of the drop-off in tuition revenue from international students. For research, too, their absence is a blow. In 2018, more than half of doctoral graduates in engineering, mathematics and computer science from American universities were foreign nationals, and the share of international students has been increasing across academic fields for at least two decades.
The pandemic has at once underscored the importance of international students to American higher education, and how precarious their presence is. “When you shut off the spigot, you see all at once the reliance you have on the flow,” Jason E. Lane, dean of the school of education at the University at Albany, told WPR in an interview.
But the disruption may not end with the development of a COVID-19 vaccine. Lane and other experts on global education warn that the more significant long-term threat may be politics, not the pandemic. Restrictive visa policies, a standoff between the United States and China, and a toxic political climate in the U.S., with a growing backlash against immigrants and any other perceived “outsiders” during Donald Trump’s presidency—all could prove to be just as virulent.
The Globalization of Higher Education
The first international students came to the United States 150 years ago to study at the alma maters of their missionary teachers. But American higher education truly went global during World War II and in the years that followed. Scientists fleeing Europe found a home at American colleges and universities, where they joined faculties and bolstered U.S. competitiveness during its Cold War research and arms race with the Soviet Union. As an ascendant global power, the U.S. invested in international development, sending American academics to help build up educational capacity in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and bringing some of the brightest young minds to the U.S. for graduate study. The boom extended beyond American borders; some countries, including Japan and Malaysia, and later Brazil and Saudi Arabia, saw education as a tool of economic transformation, and drew on their own national wealth and resources to endow scholarships for foreign study.
The sudden disruption to the pipeline of foreign students has exposed just how dependent American colleges and universities are on international enrollment.
Even with that track record of growth, the last decade and a half stands apart. It was a period of unprecedented growth in international enrollments in the United States, as the number of international students nearly doubled, hitting 1.1 million in the 2018-19 academic year, according to the Institute of International Education. Globally, more than 5.6 million students studied in another country, and other top destination countries, including the U.K., Australia and Canada, also saw international enrollment increase over this period.
The surge was the result of an uncommon confluence of factors. Top sending countries, like India and especially China, were emerging as robust economies, with burgeoning middle classes dissatisfied with the educational options at home and capable of paying expensive American tuition. At the same time, American colleges were unusually receptive to new student markets. The Great Recession had battered university budgets, as taxpayer support bottomed out and fewer students could afford to pay full freight. Institutions in the Midwest and Northeast were also beginning to experience a drop in domestic enrollments, with the number of high school graduates in decline.
“Universities had the [empty seats] and the physical infrastructure,” Alan Ruby, a senior fellow at the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, told me. “It was a pretty easy switch to international students.”
The increases in international enrollments also reflected the ethos of the time, both on campus and off. It was the era of “The World Is Flat,” Thomas Friedman’s ode to globalization. The idea that borders and barriers—to trade, to technology, to people—should be reduced to expand worldwide opportunity had broad acceptance.
First under President George W. Bush and then under President Barack Obama, the U.S. government loosened visa rules, making it easier for international students to come to study. While unveiling a plan to send 100,000 young Americans to study abroad in China, First Lady Michelle Obama called international study a “key component” of foreign policy. American higher education exported its prestige, setting up joint programs, research collaborations and, in a few cases, full-fledged campuses around the globe, most prominently New York University’s satellites in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai.
Students at the Pantheon-Sorbonne university attend a class in Paris, Sept. 24, 2020 (AP photo by Michel Euler).
Patti McGill Peterson, who administered the Fulbright Program in the years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, recalled that rather than pulling inward after the Bush administration declared its “war on terror,” the U.S. set up new academic and cultural exchanges. “The impulse was to expand our global relationships.”
In fact, in that era, most of the rather limited pushback to universities’ international ambitions was internal, from faculty members who were concerned that rapidly increasing the number of foreign students could reduce academic quality, or that in striking overseas deals in authoritarian countries, institutions might compromise academic freedom.
A Mutually Beneficial Relationship
International engagement is often framed as an educational good, but enrollments from overseas have bolstered many colleges’ and universities’ bottom lines. Although international students comprise just 5.5 percent of total enrollments in American higher education, their financial impact tends to be outsized. That’s because international students typically pay most, if not all, of the costs of their degree, and at public universities, they pay higher out-of-state rates. Unlike their American classmates, international students receive little in the way of financial aid; fewer than one in five foreign students, most in doctoral programs, say that an American university is their primary source of funding, according to the Institute of International Education. Putting it more plainly, international students are a moneymaker.
At public colleges, international students helped soften the blow of budget cuts brought on by recessions. According to a research paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, between 1996 and 2012, a 10-percent decrease in state funding was accompanied by a 12-percent increase in foreign enrollments at public research universities. At the flagships and research-intensive institutions that are members of the Association of American Universities, the impact was even greater: Foreign enrollments increased 17 percent. At some institutions, the researchers found, international students accounted for as much as 40 percent of new tuition revenue.
“Colleges built into their financial planning having international students there to pay the bills,” said Philip G. Altbach, founding director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College. As a result, “some of them have become much too dependent on international student enrollments.”
The United States remains relatively less reliant on foreign students than some other Western countries. In Australia, for example, international students make up a quarter of enrollments. Still, the economic impact of this influx was broad, and did not stop at the college gates. NAFSA, the higher education nonprofit, estimates that international students contribute $41 billion annually and support nearly 460,000 jobs in the U.S. economy. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Commerce says that foreign students generate more than $44 billion in yearly export revenue—roughly akin to the export value of automobiles or pharmaceuticals.
When the Trump administration this summer said it would prohibit international students enrolled in online-only coursework from remaining in the United States during the pandemic, Moody’s Analytics warned of “economic contractions” that could “potentially alter the short-term economic trajectory of college towns” if foreign students were abruptly forced to depart. Several dozen cities and counties filed an amicus brief in support of a lawsuit filed by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to challenge the new policy; the administration ultimately reversed course and allowed the students to stay.
If international education’s heyday coincided with globalization, nativism is now ascendant, and colleges have found themselves on one side of a societal divide.
Still, to use dollars and cents as the sole metric of international students’ value misses out on their significant contribution to the talent pipeline, especially in certain science and technology fields. As American enrollments in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields have stagnated, international students have kept graduate programs going on some campuses, as Harvey Charles, a professor of international education at the University of Albany and a former president of the Association of International Education Administrators, told me. He characterized it as a relationship of “mutual attraction”: Colleges reap the benefit of drawing top students from around the globe, while students have access to the best research and facilities.
The pipeline continues beyond graduation. For eight in 10 science and engineering graduates that hold temporary visas, their first job or postdoctoral appointment is in the United States. And foreign-born inventors, many of whom were educated at American institutions, are responsible for about a third of the U.S. patents filed annually.
Tangled Up in Geopolitics
Because the coronavirus outbreak didn’t become widespread in the United States until March, it hit American colleges mid-semester, when most students, international and domestic, were on campus. By contrast, universities in Australia and New Zealand hadn’t resumed classes when COVID-19 hit, while in China, students were dispersed for the Lunar New Year holiday.
Due to the timing—and because of the rapid closures of national borders and halting of transcontinental flights—relatively few international students were able to return to their home countries at the outset of the pandemic. The Institute of International Education reported that more than 90 percent of international students remained in the U.S., although many individual campuses put the share of stranded students between 65 and 75 percent.
The difficulty of international travel helped prevent attrition among current foreign students. Still, they continue to cope with isolation, cut off from homegrown support networks and unsure of when they will next see family and friends. The American College Health Association singled out international students as a vulnerable population, noting that many students from Asia were also subject to racism and xenophobia as a result of the coronavirus.
The frequent shifts in governmental guidance for international students, especially over visa policies, has added to that uncertainty, for new and prospective students most of all. So far, the number of new students this fall who have deferred or withdrawn is lower than initial estimates⎯but only about a fifth of all institutions have reported their enrollments, so the numbers could rise. American consulates around the globe have slowly resumed some visa processing, but if remote learning stretches into spring, students stuck abroad could decide that the headaches of studying online—including time differences, internet connectivity issues and asynchronous instruction—aren’t worth it.
The real wild cards are the students who would make up next year’s freshman class. Given the unpredictability, will they still apply to study overseas, and in particular, in America? In a recent World Education Services survey of prospective international students, 50 percent said they believe the coronavirus pandemic “will negatively impact the openness of U.S. society to international students.” Twenty percent of respondents who intended to study in the U.S. before the pandemic said they would now likely consider studying in their home country instead, and 23 percent would consider studying internationally in a country other than the U.S. “This year is bad,” Lane, the Albany dean, said, “but next year could be worse.”
A key factor affecting enrollment is the grim global perception of how the U.S. handled the coronavirus. Just 15 percent of respondents in a 13-nation Pew Research Center poll said the United States did a good job dealing with the outbreak. Until COVID-19 is under control and a vaccine is found, parents may be especially hesitant to send their children to study in the United States.
Once the global public health crisis passes, international students could perhaps return to the United States in droves again. After all, long-term student interest remains high, and past incidents and emergencies, like 9/11, haven’t had lasting effects. Other recent outbreaks, such as SARS and MERS, changed little about international study, although they weren’t nearly as bad as COVID-19 has been, especially in the United States.
But John K. Hudzik, a former vice president of global engagement at Michigan State University and a senior fellow emeritus at NAFSA, argues that COVID-19 is fundamentally different than an event like 9/11, because of the breadth and depth of its impact. The pandemic has halted travel, upended modes of teaching and learning, and changed people’s daily lives around the globe. It could fundamentally alter expectations of, and interest in, international study, he said. “The pandemic is at once temporary and a game changer,” Hudzik said. “There’s no going back to normal here.”
Other experts say that COVID-19 has magnified underlying problems affecting international enrollment. “The pandemic exacerbates, accelerates—it reveals trends,” said Penn’s Ruby. “It throws things into starker relief.”
Students take the entrance exam for Mexico’s National Autonomous University, Mexico City, Aug. 19, 2020 (AP photo by Rebecca Blackwell).
After all, the period of enormous growth in international enrollment in the U.S. had already come to an end before the coronavirus began to spread. The number of new international students on American campuses has fallen for three years in a row, and overall enrollments were flat before the pandemic. There is no single cause responsible for this falloff. The countries that send the most foreign students to the U.S. have improved their educational systems at home, while other destinations, notably Australia and Canada, have emerged as aggressive competitors for the best students. Then there’s demographics. American universities rely disproportionately on a single country, China, for their international students, but the Chinese college age population, while still large, is in decline. Observers like Hudzik have been warning for years that colleges needed to break that dependency and diversify their international recruitment.
But the more pressing challenge is the major shift in the political and cultural environment in the United States. If international education’s heyday coincided with globalization and an openness to the world, forces of nativism and nationalism are now ascendant, and colleges have found themselves on one side of a societal divide. Even before the 2016 presidential election, 60 percent of international students in one survey said they would think twice about studying in the United States if Donald Trump were president.
International students’ choices “have never been just about higher education,” said Peterson, the Fulbright administrator, who was also previously president of Wells College and St. Lawrence University. “It’s about the society in which universities exist.”
The shift hasn’t just been in attitude, but in policy. Beginning in the first week of his administration with a ban on travelers, including students, from a half-dozen predominantly Muslim countries, Trump has instituted a number of changes seen as being at odds with overseas recruitment. His administration has tightened restrictions on students from China, made it more difficult for researchers and postdocs to stay in the U.S. and work after graduation, and scrutinized international students’ backgrounds and social media accounts, even turning some away as they traveled to the U.S. to begin classes. At the end of September, the Department of Homeland Security proposed a regulation that would revoke students’ visas if they fail to complete their degrees within four years and limit students from “high risk” countries to two-year visas. Under the new rule, many students would have to come to the U.S. without knowing if they can stay long enough to earn their degrees. “It seems like from a policy sense, we’re doing everything we can to keep them away,” Lane said.
In particular, Trump’s reactionary policies on education have put China—which is not only the leading source of international students in the U.S. but the top country for research and academic partnerships for many American colleges—in the crosshairs. The Trump administration has ended the Fulbright Program in Hong Kong and mainland China, canceled the visas of students and scholars believed to have ties to the Chinese military, and warned university boards against investing their endowments in Chinese companies. Officials such as FBI Director Christopher Wray have warned about the intelligence risks posed by students and visiting researchers from China, and said that Beijing could be taking advantage of campuses’ open research environments for its own gain. Trump himself allegedly claimed that all Chinese students are spies. When it comes to China, Lane said, “we have weaponized international education as a tool of hard power, not soft power.”
American colleges are not the only ones tangled up in geopolitical tensions. In Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison is pushing for legislation that would allow his government to veto any agreements between universities and foreign governments. As tensions rise with China, India, too, is instituting tougher vetting of Chinese scientists’ visas and threatening to pull out of partnerships with Chinese universities. Even the United Kingdom’s protracted exit from the European Union could have serious implications for international education, cutting British universities off from a pool of European students, making it more difficult to hire foreign lecturers, and freezing British scholars out of European research programs.
‘International Is a Dirty Word’
This political climate surrounding international students could complicate American higher education’s rebound from the coronavirus. Many educators are waiting on the outcome of the November presidential election, banking on hopes that an administration led by Democratic nominee Joe Biden would be more hospitable to students from overseas. Still, the pandemic has highlighted just how vulnerable many institutions are to changes in the flow of international students. Rather than a drip-drip-drip of enrollment declines, COVID-19 dealt the blow all at once. As one university administrator told me, “International is a dirty word right now.”
“The pandemic is at once temporary and a game changer. There’s no going back to normal here.”
For institutions whose budgets are highly dependent on tuition revenues from international and out-of-state students, the impact could be dire. “It’s probably worse than a body blow,” Hudzik said. “It’s a cannonball going straight through them.” Small colleges that banked on international students could be forced to close or consolidate, he said. Larger universities will be in better shape because they can lean on multiple revenue sources, including bigger pools of in-state students, research grants and endowment funds, to get by. Even so, a number of highly international universities, where a quarter or more of the students are from abroad, could be in for a few tough years. Across all of higher education, revenue losses could top $3 billion, NAFSA said.
The pandemic has revealed the frailty and fallibility of a financial model of higher education that has come increasingly to rely on students from abroad. For all but the wealthiest and most elite universities, the pivot away from counting on international students for tuition won’t be smooth. Colleges started looking abroad in the first place because there were fewer alternative sources of financial support, so shifting their approach now, especially during a long economic slump created by a pandemic, won’t be easy.
Some colleges and universities may still look abroad, but they will have to find a way to do so more sustainably. That could mean increasing recruitment in more countries to decrease their dependency on places like China, or serving international students through joint programs with partner universities or on overseas branch campuses, so that students have to spend little or no time at all on American soil.
COVID-19 has revealed how exposed both countries and colleges are to global politics. It has also underscored the importance of mutual understanding and cooperation to solve common challenges. It may look otherwise today, with campuses empty because of the pandemic and foreign students facing new restrictions, but as Altbach said, “the virus, if anything, confirms the power of globalization.”
Karin Fischer is a contributing writer at the Chronicle of Higher Education and author of the newsletter “latitude(s)” on global higher education. She has more than a decade of experience reporting on the changing relationship between American colleges and the world.