COVID-19 and fall 2020: Impacts on U.S. international higher education

October 4, 2020
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Protective face mask with map of the world on it.

by Bryce Loo, Research Manager, World Education Services (WES)*

2020 has been tumultuous for U.S. international higher education. The COVID-19 pandemic struck the U.S. hard. Once believed to be the nation most prepared for a global pandemic, the U.S. now has the largest number of confirmed cases of the virus in the world. Additionally, the U.S. is facing unprecedented social and political upheaval. The protests following George Floyd’s death at the hand of Minneapolis police in May have led to a national reckoning with systemic racism and police brutality, and political rancor is at an all-time high heading into the 2020 presidential election. 

In an effort to understand the impact that these factors may have on international education in the U.S., World Education Services (WES) conducted a series of three surveys in April, June, and August 2020.

About the survey

Respondents were students who held educational credentials from other countries. Many were actively applying to U.S. higher education institutions. Some sought to come to the U.S. on student visas; others were residents with permanent status in the U.S., but educational credentials from institutions abroad. We released results from the first round of surveys in July.

Student interest in study abroad

One of our key findings answers a question that was top of mind for many in the higher education sector this summer: Would prospective international students would be able and willing to attend a U.S. college or university this fall?

The survey results indicate that the answer is yes, most international students are still intent on pursuing their studies in the U.S. In August, 50 percent of prospective international students (those on student visas) and 67 percent of residents with permanent status who had earned degrees abroad said that COVID-19 had no impact on their interest in studying on U.S. campuses. Slightly more than 20 percent of both groups even said that they were more interested in studying in the U.S. because of the pandemic, perhaps because of the public health or economic situations in their home countries. 

Over time, however, we have seen a rise in the percentage of prospective international students who say that the pandemic has lessened their interest in studying in the U.S. In June, the ratio was relatively low at 22 percent; by August, it had risen to 29 percent.

Visa question

Among international students who still want to study in the U.S., the question remained whether they would be able to travel and successfully enter the country amid the pandemic.   In our April and June surveys, both prospective international students and higher education professionals expressed their concern that many prospective students would not be able to overcome major hurdles around both international travel and visa restrictions. In August, these fears had become more widespread—some 73 percent of international student respondents indicated extreme or moderate concern that they would not be able to secure a U.S. visa in time to come for the fall term.

These visa-related concerns are well-founded. Many U.S. embassies and consulates suspended regular visa service starting in March and only began to reopen mid-summer, depending on local conditions. Many are still operating at reduced capacity. In July, the U.S. government issued guidance that would have denied visas to international students if their institution offered a strictly online curriculum. Although the guidance was rescinded, it remains indicative of a government less than ardent in its embrace of international students. 

The ongoing effects of the public health crisis have also cast many students’ plans in doubt: As of August, 73 percent of prospective international student respondents residing outside of the U.S. said they were either “extremely concerned” or “moderately concerned” that they or their dependents would contract COVID-19 while traveling to the U.S.

A deeper look

With so many questions about the impact of the pandemic and our current political unease still swirling, evidenced-based insights into student intent remain crucial.

We’ll share more of our findings in a report to be released in late October on WES’s website.

Join our October 16 webinar, "COVID-19 Impact on International Enrollment," to discuss highlights of the report and hear from colleagues implementing new strategies to deliver their programming, as well as to retain and recruit their students. Register now.


*About WES

Founded in 1974, World Education Services Inc. (WES) is a 501(c)3 non-profit social enterprise dedicated to helping international students, immigrants, and refugees achieve their educational and workplace goals in the United States and Canada. 


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