International student footfall saw a slight decline in the years 2020-21, but trends are heading “in the right direction”, according to stakeholders such as the Presidents’ Alliance and NAFSA.
In the release of the annual report on student trends from the Student and Exchange Visitor Program, the number of international students on F-1 and M-1 visas in the United States declined by 1.2%. Records show that 1,236,748 students were in the country during the 2021 calendar year.
“We continue to see other countries, and especially Canada, opening up more opportunities for international students to come study,” Miriam Feldblum, executive director of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, told The PIE News.
“That said, the data related to international students coming to the US for postsecondary education shows trends coming back, and I think the numbers will continue to recover,” she continued.
“Anecdotally, our members are reporting increases in applications from international students,” Joann Ng Hartmann, senior director for IEM-ISS Services and volunteer engagement at NAFSA also told The PIE.
“We are optimistic that international students will continue to choose the US as their top study destination knowing the richness of experiences and academic opportunities that the US offers,” she declared.
The comprehensive report, which examines the international student intake of the US from three different standpoints – students, schools and states and territories, is published every year by the US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.
The 1.2m+ active F-1 and M-1 students in the US came from over 224 countries and territories across the world.
Hartmann said it was “encouraging to see the increase in diversity of countries potential students represent”, but that US institutions will need to be “strategic and intentional” when it comes to outreach in Asia.
“While Covid had a significant impact on international student enrolment in the US, the SEVIS data is promising, and shows some notable trends,” said Virginia Commonwealth University’s Global Education Office executive director, Jill Blondin.
“We need to ensure that Chinese students and scholars are welcomed, and not unfairly targeted”
“In particular, all continents, except for Asia and Australasia, saw an increase in the number of students, which illustrates the diversity of locations from which students come,” Blondin added.
After 2020, the number international students coming to the US from Europe increased almost 8%; North America saw an increase of 5.3% and South America sent 1.3% more students.
The biggest increase came from Africa, where 9.3% came to the US to study compared to 2020 figures. Asia, however, saw a 3.8% drop in the amount of students choosing the US as a study destination.
Despite the decrease in Asia, the biggest student cohort by country across the world was China. Numbers dropped by over 8.5% on last year’s figures – while the amount of students from India grew by over 12%.
Australasia also sent fewer students to the US, with a 4.4% drop being seen compared to 2020 – and all countries included, such as Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Fiji, saw small drops in uptake.
“I think if we want to see numbers increase from China and Australasia, we need to continue to work on changing policies and creating a more welcoming environment,” Feldblum suggested.
“We need to ensure that Chinese students and scholars are welcomed, and not unfairly targeted due to xenophobia or misplaced security concerns. It has gotten better with this administration, but there are still concerns.”
The president of Dickinson College – which has an international student populous ranging from 12-15% of its student body – said that the US is likely going to be perceived in a better light in future years.
“I think we’re perceived as a friendlier nation now than we were in recent years,” said John E Jones III.
“There was a metaphorical ‘not welcome’ sign on the country, and I think that was felt viscerally by students… we’re trying to make sure that everybody feels welcome again,” Jones added.
Another trend pointed out in the report was the regional declines and increases in student records – while the Western region, including the key study location of California, saw a decline of 7.5%, all other regions saw an increase – including a 3.2% increase in the northeast, where key Ivy League universities are based.
“We’re trying to make sure that everybody feels welcome again”
Despite the decrease in the western region, California still holds the largest single percentage of student records in the country, at 16.8% – equivalent to a decline of almost 19,000 students from its 2020 figure, at 208,257 student records in 2021.
The state also has almost double the amount of SEVP-Certified schools in the country than its next largest contingent, New York, which has 480 to California’s 873 as of 2021.
K-12 numbers also featured in the data – across the board, the number of K-12 students coming to the US dropped by a substantial 16%.
“K-12 international students are still minors and not surprisingly, parents were very concerned for the health, safety, and wellbeing of their children during the pandemic and therefore less willing to send their children to school thousands of miles away,” Hartmann relented.
“Until the Covid-19 pandemic is further stabilised, and uncertainties are minimised, schools must continue to communicate and assure parents that the health and safety of international students are top priority.
“The world continues to reopen, although hot spots still flare (e.g. current lockdowns in China), so hopeful that the worst of the Covid-related declines are behind us,” she continued.
“In order to further increase enrolment numbers, we need a coordinated national strategy on recruitment like our competitors have.” Something NAFSA has been urging the Biden administration to introduce.
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