As concerns about the novel coronavirus mounted in the U.S., colleges canceled face-to-face classes and turned to online instruction in quick succession. Some institutions ordered residence halls to be vacated, raising questions about what would happen to students who couldn’t leave campus so easily.

A chunk of this population is international students, who account for a little more than 5% of the country’s total higher education enrollment. 

Administrators made clear they would make narrow exceptions for students to remain in on-campus housing. But with the coronavirus and the respiratory disease it causes, COVID-19, wreaking havoc on the global economy and forcing new restrictions on travel, international enrollment yields — the share of prospective students who have been given an offer and go on to attend a given college — have been thrown into question. 

The country has already seen a downturn in new international enrollments in the last several years. The number of new international students fell around 10% between its peak in the fall of 2015 and the fall of 2018, according to data gathered by the Institute of International Education (IIE). The drop-off is in part due to inhospitable immigration policies and hostile rhetoric from the Trump administration, explains a recent report from NAFSA: Association of International Educators. 

Yet colleges have historically relied heavily on this sector for tuition revenue to help balance budgets left gaping by decreases in state funding. Of particular importance have been students from China, who account for about one-third of all international students in the U.S.

Because U.S. institutions rely so heavily on students from China, the impact of the virus in that country could reverberate here. The first cases of the new coronavirus were recorded in China late last year, where the virus spread rapidly and led to lockdowns across the country. As of Monday afternoon, there were nearly 180,000 confirmed cases of the illness worldwide, and no longer are they concentrated only in China, according to data tracked by Johns Hopkins University.

As such, in addition to helping domestic students, U.S. colleges must also mitigate potential enrollment losses and assist those in China and worldwide who are interested in attending American institutions. Some of these students may have already been offered admission. 

Yet college officials are only beginning to figure out how to address this issue, given that the extent of the pandemic isn’t something institutions are necessarily prepared for, according to postsecondary associations that specialize in international students. Plus, the pace of developments have been dizzying.

Administrators may be reluctant to share their tactics in part because of the unsettled landscape the coronavirus has created and to avoid giving away a competitive advantage, said Lindsay Addington, director of global engagement at the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), in an interview with Education Dive.

As officials stare down an ever-more-likely scenario in which the virus dries up a critical income stream for colleges by deterring international students from studying in the U.S., they may be more inclined to take advantage of new freedoms they have in recruiting, Addington said. In September, NACAC stripped key provisions from its ethics code, allowing institutions to recruit students after May 1, which is widely agreed to be the date by which prospective students pick their college.  

Observers were concerned this would cause colleges to use aggressive recruiting tactics to poach students who had already committed to a college.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty,” Addington said.

Barriers for international students

Bans on travel have complicated matters for international students. 

In January, President Donald Trump announced that foreign nationals who had been to China would be barred from entering the U.S. within 14 days of their visit to that country, a restriction that has since been extended to Iran and most European countries. 

More than 800 students from China who were enrolled across 87 U.S. institutions were unable to come or return to campus because of travel limitations related to COVID-19, according to a survey this month from IIE. However, the “vast majority” of students from China enrolled at U.S. colleges never left for winter break or had already come back to campus, IIE noted. 

College admissions exams, such as the SAT, ACT, GMAT and TOEFL tests, the latter of which measures English-language proficiency of non-native speakers, have been suspended at some international sites including in China. That could prevent foreign students from finishing their college applications.

Even in light of those barriers, college officials are still trying to figure out how they can attract this valuable supply of students. More than three-quarters of colleges responding to IIE’s survey said their outreach to and recruitment of students from China had been affected by the coronavirus. But only 20% of institutions said they hadn’t prepared alternative recruitment strategies.

How colleges are responding

This time of year, admissions officers are typically in the midst of arranging recruitment trips to China and other countries to find students for the coming fall semester, Rachel Banks, NAFSA’s senior director of public policy and legislative strategy, told Education Dive. Without being able to leave the country, administrators are “trying to do as much online as possible,” Banks said.  

Some institutions have used webinars or other virtual modes of communication to reach students, she said. In certain cases, they have waived traditional admissions requirements. For instance, schools have sometimes allowed international students to take a test from popular language-learning platform Duolingo in lieu of the Toefl to prove their English proficiency. 

Officials at some colleges have even considered extending admissions deadlines or offering deferrals so students could start college in the spring of 2021 instead of this coming fall, should the coronavirus continue to interrupt travel.

“That’s a good testament to our member institutions, that they can be flexible and nimble in this unprecedented environment,” Banks said.

At Lehigh University, in Pennsylvania, about 9% of undergraduates are international students, said Morgan Volkart, its associate vice provost of the western region and international recruitment. About half of those students are from China. She told Education Dive on Friday that the university has not yet heard concerns about the coronavirus from its current and prospective international student population.

But administrators there have considered several options to accommodate students, among them a later start date for the fall semester and developing general education courses freshmen could take online their first semester, Volkart said. Because yields will be harder to determine, administrators across all academe are also considering pushing back the May 1 commitment deadline.

“It is forcing us to think in a different way, a little more creatively, with how we engage with students,” Volkart said.

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