US Enrollment of International Students for Fall 2021 is a Mixed Bag

April 7, 2021 by Dean Hoke. To no one’s surprise, international enrollment to US universities in the Fall of 2020 dropped for thousands of post-secondary institutions due to the pandemic. It was confirmed by The Student and Exchange Visitor Program, better known as SEVIS, a part of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), in its March 2021 annual report . Titled “SEVIS by the Numbers” they presented a bleak picture of the 2020 -21 school year.

The Breakdown

SEVIS reported a 72% decrease in new international students among the 6,914 institutions with at least one international student.   All enrollment levels in higher education in 2020 experienced a decline compared to 2019:

Associate degree 19.9% decrease

Bachelors degree 13% decrease

Masters degree 16% decrease

Doctoral degree 4.7% decrease

The top 20 most popular schools account for 18% of the overall international student population.

SEVIS by the Numbers March 2021

The five hundred higher education institutions with the highest international student populations in 2020 experienced a decline of 9.67%. Only one of the top twenty, The University of the Cumberlands, reported an increase of 13.32% (1,366 students), and only forty-eight of the top five hundred experienced an increase. The other 6,114 schools suffered an average loss of 35.69%. 

The largest international students’ losses come from China and India, which provide 590,021 of the overall international student population. China experienced a 91,936 reduction (19.38%) change compared to 2019 and India a 41,761 reduction (16.76%). The other nations experienced similar losses.

Enrollment Outlook in 2021

Common App, a non-profit membership organization representing nearly 900 higher education institutions, reports the number of international applications to its US member institutions rose 13% over last year.

While there is an increase of 13%, it seems to be concentrated in selective institutions both large and small. The less selective institutions have slightly increased or are flat. The large (10,000 and above), less selective schools show a 10% decrease.

Bridge U, an Educational Tech company based in Europe, which provides university career guidance for global secondary schools evaluated 114,597 applications by high school students who applied to US universities . They found the number of applications to US top 50 world-ranked schools increased by 4%; however, there is a decline of 11.4% of US schools not ranked in QS top 200. They also report among their constituency that Asia is down by nearly 13%. Other regions such as Central and South America are down 10% while most other areas are flat, but Europe is up by 4%.  Individual countries such as China show a 12% decrease, but India is up 9.5%.     

  It is important to point out that both reports show individual students are applying to more universities.  Bridge U reports the following:

Bridge U 2021 study

Key Takeaways

  • The international student enrollment decline for the 2020 academic year had a significant effect on the vast majority of US higher education institutions. In some cases, the combination of international and domestic student losses forced some US institutions to merge or close their doors. According to Moody’s Investor Services’ recent report, higher education will feel the adverse effect on institutional credit rating for the next several years.    
  • Schools ranked a top 200 world-ranked schools are seeing a quick recovery in undergraduate and graduate international students. Reputation does matter to international students and their parents. However, schools with a smaller international student population (less than 450)  experienced an average student loss of 36% will take much longer to return to 2019 enrollment. Many schools may not be able to regain that population back.
  • Enrollment of students from China will stay down for at least the next 2-3 years. There are various reasons, including COVID, political tension between China and the US, increased competition by other countries to recruit their students, and China encouraging their students to stay home.
  • There is an increased competition by other countries to recruit international students. The US is not the only nation with higher education institutions that experienced significant student losses. Australia, the UK, among many who have a higher economic dependency on international students, were economically hurt. The United States, while the nation with the most international students, has been experiencing a slow decline before COVID. Many countries such as Canada, Germany, the United Arab Emirates, Australia, and the UK have been developing friendlier student visa and work policies. They also are increasing marketing campaigns to undergraduate and graduate students throughout the Asia continent by offering more favorable tuition rates and job opportunities.


US higher education institutions are not out of the woods yet. While early application figures show increases in domestic students and international students, the smaller, less selected state and private schools are not seeing the same bounce. The Biden Administration needs to help higher education quickly develop new policies which are more attractive for international students both at the undergraduate and graduate level.   In my article dated January 18, 2021, titled “Starting A New Era for International Students in America,”  I presented four ideas the current administration through its agencies should consider:

  1. Biden administration set a target for annual growth of 7-10 percent in the number of international students attending US universities
  2. Develop new scholarship opportunities to attract International Students
  3. Enhanced International Recruitment and Marketing
  4. Expand Academic International Partnerships

Colleges and universities also must develop new strategies to be less dependent on China and India who provide nearly 50% of the international student population. Higher education should look at many for-profit companies who thrived on few clients for most of their revenue, and when they lose key clients soon go out of business. Universities recruiting international students primarily from one or two nations must diversify and develop a broader global student feeder system.

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