Field Notes: International Student Impact and Prospects

December 21, 2023
  • International
  • International Admissions and Credential Evaluation
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"Field Notes" is an occasional Connect column covering practical and philosophical issues facing admissions and registrar professionals. The columns are authored by various AACRAO members. If you have an idea for a column and would like to contribute, please send an email to the editor at

By Tara Kent, Director of the Office of the Registrar for AMDA's New York campus

From the boom since the enactment of the Immigration and Nationality Act in the 1950s to the unprecedented challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, the trajectory of international student enrollment in the United States has been nothing short of a dynamic narrative. As colleges and universities wrestled with the complexities of the global shutdown, their focus expanded beyond deciphering the intricacies of the treacherous virus to navigating the perplexity of maintaining enrollment, especially for those students who had entered the United States on a student visa.

Up until 2020, the upward trend in international student numbers seemed unstoppable. Nevertheless, the 2020-2021 academic year marked a stark deviation from this direction. Total enrollment plummeted to 914,095, witnessing a significant 15% decline from the previous year. The culprit was not solely the pandemic; it was exacerbated by the Trump Administration's determined push to implement a Policy Directive. Had it not been rescinded, this directive would have mandated that international students leave the U.S. if they opted for fully online classes in the fall 2020 semester (Park & Shimada, 2022)

This pivotal moment underscores the resilience of international education and the intricate interplay of global events shaping the academic landscape. With the shift in circumstances, colleges and universities can now breathe a sigh of relief, witnessing a positive trajectory in the enrollment numbers of international students. This not only signifies an economic rebound for higher education institutions but also promises positive impacts in various other facets uniquely influenced by the presence of international students.

Open Doors Report

On November 13, 2023, the State Department's Open Doors report revealed promising discoveries from the 2022-2023 academic year. The report discloses that 1,057,188 international students from over 210 locations were enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities. The report suggested that this 12% increase in enrollment is substantial and noteworthy for achieving the fastest growth rate in over four decades. Moreover, as per the report, the primary sources of this remarkable surge in enrolled international students are China, India, and South Korea.

United States Visa Processing

With the uptick of international student applicants reviewed by admissions offices in colleges and universities nationwide, one may be concerned about how the State Department will process student visas and what they are doing to prevent a backlog. On November 28, 2023, the Foreign Press Centers (FPC) held a briefing with Julie Stufft, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Visa Services. Ms. Stufft outlined the Department's goal to surpass pre-pandemic visa processing levels, a target successfully exceeded in the 2023 Fiscal Year. Acknowledging challenges, particularly for first-time U.S. entrants, she emphasized the ongoing focus on reducing wait times.

China and India

During the Q&A portion of the FPC briefing, a Caixin Media representative raised concerns about a decline in Chinese students studying in the U.S., seeking insights into the reasons behind this trend. Ms. Sufft acknowledged China's historical prominence in international student numbers but highlighted a recent shift, with India surpassing China in recent years. While Ms. Sufft did not pinpoint a specific cause for the decline in Chinese students, she emphasized their historically high approval rate for U.S. study, assuring that Chinese students are still encouraged to apply. The briefing did not elaborate on the specific reasons for the change. However, the Biden Administration has forged extensive partnerships with India across various domains, including technology, next-generation defense, and shared prosperity. The United States issued 125,000 visas to Indian students last year, marking a substantial 20% increase, as reported in the FACT SHEET: Republic of India Official State Visit to the United States. 

International Students Impact on U.S. Colleges and Universities

International students contribute positively to the holistic environment of colleges and universities. Their presence not only establishes a global presence for academic institutions, enhancing admissions, but also the interactions among domestic and international students contribute to overall learning outcomes and success, thereby positively influencing completion rates. Beyond the economic implications, the entire campus also benefits from distinct experiences related to cultural diversity, educational exchange, and language skills. Each element plays a role in the complete enrollment cycle, from recruitment to graduation.

Cultural Diversity

Enrolling international students in colleges and universities brings benefits not only to the individuals themselves but also enhances the overall experience for domestic students on campus. This exposure fosters cross-cultural adaptability and facilitates intercultural interactions, contributing to the development of individual character and equipping students to thrive in multicultural professional environments post-graduation. This preparation becomes crucial as they fulfill their professional goals beyond the institution (Zimmermann et al., 2021)

Education Exchange

Classroom interactions involving domestic and international students offer a platform for exchanging ideas and perspectives, fostering a deeper understanding of diverse viewpoints. This exchange of values and beliefs creates an environment conducive to intellectual growth. Moreover, research indicates that domestic students engaging with their international counterparts positively influences their critical thinking and yields favorable outcomes across various aspects of college, including general education, STEM, and career readiness (Luo & Jamieson-Drake, 2013).

Language Skills

The presence of international students can improve the language proficiency of the local population. Engaging with individuals from diverse linguistic backgrounds creates a valuable opportunity for language acquisition, particularly fostering heightened awareness of language usage in both English and other languages from other countries (Luo & Jamieson-Drake, 2013).


An optimistic projection emerges as we navigate the ever-changing landscape of international student enrollment in the United States. Recent data, with a 12% increase in international students, paints an encouraging picture and signifies the fastest growth rate over four decades. Simultaneously, the commitment from the Department of State to reduce visa processing wait times offers a promising pathway. This strategic move facilitates smoother enrollment for students and contributes to a vibrant and globally connected educational community. The positive impact of international students on U.S. colleges and universities is undeniable — enriching cultural diversity while fostering education exchange. As these factors align, it becomes evident that the future holds promise for increased enrollment, streamlined processes, and a continued positive influence on the American higher education landscape.


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