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In 2020, Number Of International Students In U.S. Dropped By 16%, New Data Show


The number of international students studying in the U.S. has plummeted 16% this year. That's according to a new survey of 700 colleges and universities. Some experts are confident the numbers will rebound once the pandemic passes. Others are not so sure and say countries like Canada have become increasingly attractive options for international students. Kavitha Cardoza from member station WAMU reports.

KAVITHA CARDOZA, BYLINE: Nikita Chinchwade moved from India to the U.S. last fall to get a master's degree.

NIKITA CHINCHWADE: It had been, like, a dream of mine for a very long time because of the quality of education here.

CARDOZA: The U.S. has historically been a top destination for international students. They're attracted by the opportunities for research, the easy interaction with faculty and the social environment on campuses. But this year, new international student enrollment dropped an unprecedented 43%. Thousands have deferred enrollment. That's according to a new survey by the Institute of International Education. This has serious consequences for higher education. To put it simply, international students bring in a lot of money.

RACHEL BANKS: They typically pay higher tuition rates than domestic students do.

CARDOZA: That's Rachel Banks with NAFSA, the Association of International Educators. She says before the pandemic, these students contributed about $40 billion yearly to the U.S. economy and supported about half a million jobs.

BANKS: In some instances, they'll even pay more than, say, out-of-state students would, so schools certainly would feel that directly.

CARDOZA: It's also about more than money.

MARTIN MCFARLANE: When you get down to it, with higher education, it's an exchange of ideas, isn't it?

CARDOZA: Martin McFarlane is director of International Student Services at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It has among the highest number of international students of any university in the U.S. - more than 10,500. McFarlane says these students come with different backgrounds, ideas and values.

MCFARLANE: Everybody is learning from each other, so you want to cast your net as wide as you can. We are so interconnected globally that if you're cutting yourself off from that, then you're doing yourself a disservice.

CARDOZA: A Duke University study found that U.S. undergraduates who engaged with international students enhance their self-confidence, leadership and quantitative skills. They were also more likely to appreciate art and literature, place current problems in historical perspective and read or speak a foreign language. The U.S. has long recognized the real benefit to hosting these students may be the longer-term influence - magnifying the country's diplomatic soft power. But in stark contrast to the U.S. declines over the past few years, the U.K., Canada and Australia have been seeing enrollment spikes. Alexis Abramson, dean of engineering at Dartmouth University, says she's worried about fewer international students, particularly in STEM fields - science, technology, engineering and math.

ALEXIS ABRAMSON: We're all very concerned that the U.S. will lose its competitive edge. Engineers and scientists invent things and innovate and start new companies and solve a lot of the most pressing problems facing our world.

CARDOZA: A recent survey of 500 U.S. officials found several reasons for fewer international students - the visa process and high tuition costs, as well as the political climate and feeling unwelcome. For the first time, a main reason listed was global competition. Rachel Banks from NAFSA isn't surprised. She says the Trump administration has made it harder to study here through their policies and anti-immigrant rhetoric. Banks says of course international students are looking elsewhere.

BANKS: They'll either stay home if that's an option, or they will go to one of these competitor countries, which, frankly, they are currently falling over themselves to put themselves out as, you know - look; the United States doesn't want you, but we do.

CARDOZA: Arvind Ganesh always wanted to study in the U.S. But when the time came to actually make a decision for grad school, he chose Canada.

ARVIND GANESH: The education expense is one thing, and the cost of living is another thing. Coupled together, we also have the problem of, you know, security to international students. I'm talking more about racial bias.

CARDOZA: Students like Ganesh have contributed to double-digit increases in Canada. They have lower tuition costs, generous work-study policies and clear pathways to permanent residency and citizenship. Ganesh starts classes soon and is excited about making friends and learning about Canada. He's not too worried about cultural shock.

GANESH: That comes first with the people there. Even though it's also a very cold country, you feel still warm when you know that people are more welcoming and embracing.

CARDOZA: He says that's what makes a different country feel like a home away from home.

For NPR News, I'm Kavitha Cardoza in Washington, D.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.