Unwelcome and Adrift: International Students are the Next Enrollment Cliff

Deterred by anti-immigrant rhetoric and the COVID-19 pandemic, international students are considering countries other than the U.S. for their education.

6 minutes
By: Charlie Harcourt, Janice Cheng-McConnell

International students were thrown for a chaotic, fearful loop in July when the Trump administration announced they could not remain in the United States if their colleges planned fully online instruction in the fall. Their concerns weren’t alleviated when the policy was quickly rescinded. 

Instead, the government’s failure to contain the spread of COVID-19 combined with a steady wave of anti-immigrant rhetoric and nationalistic immigration policies have quickly made the U.S. a much less appealing destination for the 1 million international students studying here. And as other countries ramp up their appeals to these scholars, short-term projections for international student enrollment in the U.S. have plummeted, leading to the greater concern that this negative trend will continue even after the pandemic subsides.

“I think it’s kind of the straw that’s breaking the camel’s back in many areas,” said Nicole Frutuoso, a college adviser at a national curriculum school in Brazil. “Immigration issues were worries long before [President] Trump came into office. Affordable options elsewhere have grown, and been more publicized, with many countries tying immigration incentives to studying there.”

A report from the National Association of Foreign Student Advisers (NAFSA) revealed that overall, international students feel less safe and less welcome in the U.S. compared to previous years. Attracting and retaining top-performing scholars from around the world has already been a challenge for American higher education institutions. Given the current environment, the National Foundation for American Policy predicts a precipitous drop — anywhere between 63 percent and 98 percent — in enrollment of new international students in the 2020-21 school year, a difference of up to 100,000 students. A different enrollment cliff is imminent.

“Trump’s unforgiving immigration policies infuriate some students, and they feel underappreciated and rejected.” – Uyen Luu, international student

We asked over a dozen students, counselors, and other higher education professionals to comment on the emotions driving decision-making within international education during this time. Both current and prospective international students are deeply concerned about the larger environment of health, safety, and immigration in the U.S., even more than they are about the logistics of remote instruction and degree completion during a pandemic. Meanwhile, independent education consultants and college counselors at international schools, such as members of the International Association for College Admission Counseling, say many students they work with are looking at alternatives to studying in the U.S. 

“All the rising seniors I’ve met here in Hanoi are planning to apply to other countries,” said Cristina Bain, an independent college admissions adviser in Vietnam. “[They are] keeping their options open. They’re definitely waiting for the U.S. to normalize, and the longer it goes on, the more concerned and disillusioned they have become.”

Restrictive Immigration Policies and Increased Competition

Due to travel bans, border closures, airline shutdowns, and strict quarantine measures, many international students were forced to enroll in online courses from their home countries this fall instead of traveling to campuses, and may have to continue to do so in the spring semester. U.S. embassies and consulates continue to operate at limited capacity, resulting in longer wait times for visa services and appointments. Though current international students are now allowed to stay in the U.S. and attend courses online, new international students were prohibited from entering the country if their schools held classes entirely online for the fall semester.

The Department of Homeland Security has also recently submitted a proposal to restrict the duration of stay for international students with F, J, and I visas to a fixed time period, citing the department’s need to “promptly detect national security concerns.” Under the current policy, international students are allowed to remain in the U.S. as long as they continue to comply with all criteria of their status while pursuing their studies. This change would most directly impact doctoral candidates and similar students for whom degree completion is often a long and unpredictable journey. This proposed ruling would also require students whose academic programs stretch beyond the authorized duration of stay to apply for an extension with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, most likely incurring more costs, time, and mental duress.

“All the rising seniors I’ve met here in Hanoi are planning to apply to other countries.” – Cristina Bain, college admissions advisor


Namita Kothari-Mehta, an education consultant in India, noted that, historically, her students have only considered applying to American colleges and universities, but are “now casting a wider net and applying to other destinations as well.” She pointed to the COVID-19 upheaval, the associated uncertainty about college reopenings, and travel and visa restrictions as the main reasons that international students and their families are considering other options, including staying home in India.

In contrast, countries such as Canada, China, and Australia have ramped up international recruitment through proactive marketing campaigns that position themselves as more welcoming destinations for international students. Similar to the United Kingdom and Canada, Australia recently updated its post-graduation work visa program to make it easier for international students to stay in the country and find employment after obtaining their degrees. 

Sekou Sannoe, a prospective undergraduate student from Liberia, said the Trump administration’s immigration policies pose “a very serious challenge to an international student wanting to study in the United States, especially [those] from a developing nation. The decision to ban several majority-Muslim countries does not only affect these countries but also some of us who carry Muslim names.”

Uyen Luu, a Vietnamese international student who recently graduated from a Boston-area university, echoed that sentiment.

“Trump’s unforgiving immigration policies also infuriate some students, as they feel underappreciated and rejected,” Uyen said. “It has always been more difficult for international students to live and find opportunities in the U.S.; the new policies make it seem almost hopeless.”

A Fearful Reaction to America’s Pandemic Response

The American response to the COVID-19 pandemic has also negatively impacted its reputation as a desirable place of study for international students. According to a September New York Times article, the United States accounts for about 22 percent of the world’s confirmed deaths due to COVID-19, despite having only 4 percent of the world’s population. Six months after much of the country went into lockdown, mask-wearing is still the topic of fierce debate, from the White House to grocery stores — even as the president and many close to him have recently contracted the virus.

“What’s baffling me right now is the upsurge [in COVID-19] cases ravaging the U.S. and the world at large,” said Temidayo Bello, a Nigerian undergraduate student who recently enrolled at a private liberal arts college in New York. “What’s the government doing in curbing this virus [in the U.S.]? I fear this will affect my processing and admission as an international student.”

“The decision to ban several majority-Muslim countries does not only affect these countries but also some of us who carry Muslim names.” – Sekou Sannoe, international student


Adowa Osei, an incoming freshman from Ghana, is equally worried about unpredictable pandemic response measures that may impact her enrollment process. “My parents are scared that my visa will be denied,” she said, citing local embassy closures and travel restrictions.

Like Bello and Osei, many international students are concerned about the feasibility of pursuing an American education during the pandemic. Just over half of incoming international students surveyed by World Education News & Reviews plan to postpone their studies in the U.S., while 23 percent indicated they are now more likely to study in a location other than the U.S. — and are considering countries that have successfully carried out measures to contain the pandemic, such as New Zealand. As a direct result of their swift response to COVID-19, Australia has been able to lift travel restrictions for international students, allowing them to resume their studies in-person as soon as possible.

“Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in March, I have had many friends who traveled back to Vietnam and postponed their unfinished studies in the U.S., or even worsecanceled completely and looked for education elsewhere,” said Uyen, the Vietnamese international student.

During the summer months, colleges and universities grappled with the challenge of a coherent method of instruction, seesawing from in-person to fully online, and vice-versa. The struggle hasn’t stalled — many campuses that offered residential experiences were forced to change course quickly after opening in the fall due to outbreaks, while other institutions are ramping up testing protocols and penalties for students flouting social-distancing rules. 

How Can Higher Education Support International Students?

If the hardline approach to immigration continues and a second wave of COVID-19 cases shuts down the nation again in the fall and winter, it seems likely that more international students will change their plans to seek or continue higher education in the U.S. and choose an alternative destination. But for how long? And what can American colleges and universities do to support international students through enrollment and degree completion?

“What’s the government doing in curbing this virus in the U.S.?” – Temidayo Bello, international student


To combat the deteriorating perception of the U.S. as a desirable study destination, NAFSA has launched the “You are Welcome Here” social media marketing and scholarship campaign in collaboration with higher education institutions. But, in our opinion, it is simply not enough to encourage new international students to enroll at our institutions. We must also communicate a message that is welcoming and empathetic, while offering comprehensive support to prospective international students and those who are already with us. 

Communication is key. Cultural differences and stigma about mental health mean that international students are less likely than other student groups to reach out for support. This remains true whether students are living in the university community or in their home countries. Communication with international students should be frequent, but direct and easy to understand. Messaging should be personalized to the extent possible, created specifically for students at their level of study. 

Flexibility with planning is also crucial. It is not yet known whether visa and travel regulations for international students will change for spring 2021, making it difficult for foreign scholars to plan and budget ahead for their U.S. education. There are a few ways to do that.

  • Consider innovative housing solutions and travel accommodations to provide international students ease of mind when arriving in the country, especially those traveling with their families.
  • Offer support for deferred enrollment.
  • Provide academic advising, innovative course delivery, and classes during the summer and winter semesters to help students stay on track for program completion.
  • Develop programming to connect international students with each other and the campus community to battle feelings of isolation.

Most importantly, schools should proactively acknowledge international students’ unique fears and concerns. They are more than just lost tuition revenue — the decrease of foreign scholarship and diverse perspectives in American higher education hinders institutions’ ability to prepare students for global citizenship. 

“I’m not feeling well lately with everything that’s going on in the world,” said Aye Aye Myint, a freshman from Myanmar who enrolled at a women’s college in Massachusetts. “With all the COVID-19 safety guidelines and protocol, it won’t even be fun. I don’t know. It’d be great if I could actually have the first-year experience. I tried so hard to get here, and it’s been a bumpy ride. I really don’t want to pay thousands of dollars just to stare at my laptop and have my sleep schedule reversed. I hope it gets better. I really do.”

International students such as Aye Aye Myint need to know that colleges and universities in the U.S. recognize the serious issues that are causing them untold stress and apprehension. Campus leadership, staff, and faculty must demonstrate the ability of our institutions to be safe havens for scholarship, social engagement, and cultural exchange that value international students, regardless of the tone of the current administration. To find success in such a difficult environment, the best strategy is to embrace our instinctual need for community, and forge a path forward through personal interactions, compassion, and creativity.

Editor’s note: Some names and identifying details in this article have been changed out of respect for the individuals who wish to remain anonymous.

Charlie Harcourt

Charlie Harcourt

Charlie Harcourt is the associate director of Graduate and International Programs at Cazenovia College. Previously, he recruited and supported international students throughout the enrollment process as the international recruitment and operations coordinator at Wells College in Aurora, N.Y. He also serves in leadership roles with the American International Recruitment Council and the Myanmar Foundation for Analytic Education. Outside of being an international education professional, Charlie is an avid bird-watcher and self-proclaimed nature nerd. 

Janice Cheng-McConnell

Janice Cheng-McConnell

Janice Cheng-McConnell is the assistant director of Graduate Enrollment Communications at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. Originally from Taiwan, she attended Binghamton (N.Y.) University as an international student, where she studied creative writing and public administration. Janice is an Oxford comma advocate and tabletop role-playing enthusiast. Connect with her on Twitter @dear_preferred.

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