Data overload: Focus on what matters most moving forward with international student recruitment Skip to main content

The Fall season is always a busy time for international educators, particularly in an election year. While spirits on campus during International Education Week may well have been lifted by the upcoming change in administration come January, most data enthusiasts struggled mightily to find encouraging signs given the numbers available.

The following are the eye-opening stats from five published reports:

Open Doors (data from the 2019/20 academic year)

  •   International student enrollments down 1.8% overall

  •   New international students down .6% (in 2019/2020)

IIE International Students in US High Schools report (2019 data)

  •   Down 8% overall – primarily diploma seekers; exchange high school students basically flat 

NAFSA International Student Economic Value Tool (2019/2020 data)

  •   First drop in international student value in 20 years of this report, from $41 to $38.7 billion

IIE Fall Snapshot survey (Fall 2020)

  •   Down 16% overall – from 700 institutional respondents

  •   Down 43% in new international students, with 40,000 deferrals

SEVIS by the Numbers (Sept. 2020 data)

  •   Enrolled F and M visa students down 21% v. January 2020 numbers

  •   Enrolled international students fall under 1 million for first time since 2015

Given these less-than-stellar numbers, the casual observer might feel like the United States’ preeminence in international student mobility might be in serious jeopardy, if not over. Others might lay the blame solely at the door of the current administration. The reality is that what we have experienced this year with the Covid-19 pandemic has been unprecedented in our profession. The disruption to normal processes, staffing on campus, recruitment plans, messaging, and communications with future students has left even the most level-headed among us to lose sleep over what could possibly be next.

What we need now is a bit of perspective on these numbers and our situation. While there is certainly value in digging into these reports– particularly the Fall Snapshot survey, which gives us a glimpse of what 700 US colleges have self-reported this fall– the global context is important as well. Let’s look at what’s happening with other key destinations for international students:

  •   Australia – borders closed since March, down 99% in new international student numbers, may reopen in 2021. Closure could result in international student decline.

  • New Zealand – borders closed since March, down 100% in new overseas students, may reopen in 2021.

  • Canada – borders closed since March for students without a study permit issued before mid-March where the college/university does not require students to be on-campus. Borders technically re-opened in October, but only for institutions with government-approved.

  • United Kingdom – re-opened borders for students, had visa services available in major markets, and campuses largely offered online with small hybrid in-person components. Saw acceptance rates for offers for new international students.

Other than the UK, most other countries have either shut down or severely restricted new student arrivals this year. While there has been a slight downturn in new international student numbers over the last four years (according to Open Doors, a high of -6% in 2017-18, the low this past year only -.6%), this summer the challenge wasn’t necessarily interest in the U.S. dropping off a cliff (as the IIE Fall Snapshot -43% number might indicate). Much of the cause for the decline, particularly for new arriving students from overseas, is likely due to the lack of U.S. consulates and embassies being open for new student visa interviews.

Based on research conducted by a trusted colleague, Jason Hall, who tracks the visa wait times published on the U.S. Department of State site, 70% of U.S. consulates and embassies are not currently taking student visa appointments, including 4 of 5 in India, and 3 of 6 in China, our top two source countries for international students. The ones in India and China that are open (Delhi, Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou) are taking emergency appointments only (which has generally meant only within 15 days of the start listed on the student’s I-20). End of FY20 U.S. government data backs up the impact of the lack of open consulates on visas granted during the pandemic: In China, student visas issued April-September were down down 99% from a year earlier, only 808 issued (down from over 90,000); and in India, there was a 64% drop in F-1 visas in FY20 versus FY19.

The good news is that the current fall numbers represent the bottom for the U.S. given all other factors that impacted student interest. Survey after survey has indicated that international students want to study in person, but are willing to accept some intermediate state of affairs, whether online for a semester and/or quarantine periods. The challenge is they don’t want to wait forever. IDP Connect’s latest International Students Crossroads Research shares that the decision by the US and UK to remain open for students has “driven increasingly positive sentiment.” Prospective students are also more bullish on starting studies with measures in place to mitigate risks (90% in October v. 72% in June) after their arrival.

Now is the time to be reassuring your prospects, especially through messages from your currently enrolled international students that can share what good things your college is doing to make them feel safe.

Marty Bennett01 December 2020

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