Want To Know Where International Students Are Headed Next Year?

The U.S. has long been the top destination for international students globally. With roughly one million international students currently enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities, the U.S. attracts twice as many international students as the 2nd and 3rd top destination countries. But enrollment numbers have been on the decline since the 2016/17 academic year. And now with Covid-19 numbers continuing to spike and ICE guidance that threatened to send international students home if their campuses remain online, many U.S. higher ed leaders are wondering just how bad it might get for international student recruitment. A new report out this morning provides a glimpse of what lies ahead.

The study, done by BridgeU, pulls from a combination of surveys of prospective international students across 83 countries and university guidance counselors from 41 countries in addition to data from nearly 17,000 international high school students utilizing the BridgeU university and career guidance platform. (BridgeU is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Kaplan, where I am employed.) Insights were gathered from students planning to enroll in universities this coming academic year (2020) and next (2021). Here are the key takeaways:

·      67% of international students indicate they are not changing their plans for 2020. Of the 33% who are changing plans, the vast majority (86%) still plan to attend a university but have changed either the country or university they initially intended. Only 3% decided against enrolling in a university.

·      Of those who indicated changing their plans, 42% are picking a new country destination for their studies.

·      Among the countries losing the most among these country-switching international students include the U.S. (down 71%), Canada (down 58%) and the U.K. (down 56%).

·      The biggest gainers by country include Australia (up 167%), India (up 53%), Germany (up 53%) and South Korea (up 52%).

·      As for the prospective international students planning to enroll in 2021, the forecast shows a relatively small but meaningful 7% fewer students short-listing the U.S. as their top country destination. Among countries making big gains in international students listing them as their top destination of choice, China leads the world with a 124% increase – followed by Italy (up 83%), Germany (up 53%) and India (up 53%).

·      Despite all these shifts, the market for international students will still be dominated by the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. - together accounting for 85% of all 2021 prospective international students’ top countries of choice on the BridgeU platform.

So what does all this add up to, exactly? No doubt, the U.S. will face a tumultuous year for international students. The impact of the global pandemic is impossible to predict at this point with the uncertainty of ongoing travel and visa restrictions. ICE guidance continues to leave some incoming international students in limbo – with Harvard and USC telling first-year international students to stay home. U.S. colleges reported that 92% of their current international students remained in the country during the pandemic – so there will be less concern about losing currently enrolled students.

The forecast for U.S. international student enrollment in 2021 – although down only 7% - would account for the equivalent of losing an entire Ohio State University worth of enrollments and billions of dollars of lost tuition revenue. The U.S. still maintains a dominant lead as the top destination for international students. The trend lines, however, are of most concern. With international student enrollments down for the past 4 years and forecasts to be down for at least the next 2 years, it’s clear the U.S. is facing more of a prolonged recession rather than a short-term dip. What this means for U.S. higher education’s position as the world’s leader is a serious question. Right now, it looks like China could be a big winner in the years to come.