The Open Doors 2021 report showed that in the 2020/21 academic year, 914,095 international students studied at US colleges and universities – a decrease of 15% from the previous academic year.
Between 2014/15 and 2019/20, there were consistently more than one million international students in the country annually. According to NAFSA, the combined decline in international students in the US over the past two years is equivalent to a fall of $12.1 billion
However, overall the total number of international students (enrolled and OPT) increased by 4% in Fall 2021, according to the 2021 Fall International Student Enrollment Snapshot of over 860 US higher education institutions.
Higher education institutions also reported a 68% increase in the number of new international students enrolling for the first time at a US institution in 2021/22, a “notable surge” from the 46% decline reported in Fall 2020.
A total of 145,528 international students studied at their US university for the first time in 2020/21, the Open Doors report showed, which last year’s snapshot survey anticipated.
“International students are central to the free flow of ideas, innovation, economic prosperity, and peaceful relations between nations,” said Matthew Lussenhop, acting assistant secretary for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, US Department of State.
“The United States is strongly committed to international education as we continue to build back better”
“As reiterated in the recent Joint Statement of Principles in Support of International Education by the US Departments of State and Education, the United States is strongly committed to international education as we continue to build back better.”
In addition to this “surge” in student numbers the report found that 99% of responding US institutions said they are holding classes in-person or implementing a hybrid education model, demonstrating the ongoing commitment to return students to campus or offer options to study online.
Student places of origin
The Open Doors report, from the US Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the Institute of International Education, also revealed noted that all places of origin and regions saw declines due to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, some regions saw more significant declines than others.
The authors of the report found that Chinese and Indian students continued to pursue their education at US institutions in “large numbers”.
While both groups declined this year (by 14.8% and 13.2%, respectively), they did so by less than the overall rate, “illustrating the strength and appeal a US education holds in both countries”.
China and India were still the most important markets for the US. Students from the two countries accounted for 53% of the US’s international students.
After China and India the leading places of origin for international students in the US were Kuwait (5.1%) Saudi Arabia (4.1%) and South Korea (2.9%).
Canada, Latin America, and Sub-Saharan Africa saw relatively smaller declines, with potential ease of access to the US during the pandemic and the ability to begin or continue programs virtually within a similar time zone as many US institutions.
“US colleges and universities remained open and welcoming in face of Covid-19 challenges and are well prepared for what’s ahead,” said IIE chief executive officer, Allan E. Goodman.
“The Open Doors 2021 report gives us all a benchmark to gauge the progress we are making to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic.”
STEM subjects remained a significant draw for international students, with 54% pursuing a major in a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics field, including engineering, math and computer science, physical and life sciences, health professions, or agriculture.
Engineering was the most popular major, with one in five (21%) international students pursuing it.
Significant decline for study abroad
The report found that Covid-19 resulted in a 53% decline overall for US study abroad programs across the country.
These declines occurred primarily during the 2020 spring and summer durations. Summer programs, which comprised 39% of all US study abroad programming in 2018/19, decreased by 99% in 2019/20.
The report noted that during Spring 2020, 867 US higher education institutions launched emergency efforts to return students to the US, bringing a reported 55,000 students home from their studies early amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
US study abroad programs then pivoted to offer alternative modes of study abroad – data showed that 242 institutions reported offering online global learning experiences to over 10,400 students.
European countries remain the most popular destination for American students, welcoming more than half (58%) of total US study abroad students. However, some of these countries were also the hardest hit by the Covid-19 pandemic in spring 2020. As a result, these programs saw declines of 41% to 53%.
“Our commitment to Americans studying abroad is a commitment to our collective future”
Americans studied in more than 180 countries and had a presence on every continent, including Antarctica. In addition to the 162,633 US students who received academic credit for study abroad in 2019/20, 252 institutions reported that an additional 11,256 US students participated in non-credit work, internships, volunteering, and research abroad.
“Our commitment to Americans studying abroad is a commitment to our collective future,” said Ethan Rosenzweig, deputy assistant secretary for Academic Programs, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, US Department of State.
“As study abroad slowly returns, we must recommit ourselves to ensuring that study abroad becomes ever more accessible to, and reflective of, the rich diversity of the United States.”