Analysing some 120,000 applications submitted to US higher education institutions by BridgeU students in international schools in 120 countries, the paper found that while overall applications to US institutions decreased in the 2020/21 cycle, the number of applications made per student has risen.

“International higher admissions has ground to make up [in the US]”

Although international students are applying earlier, they are not using restrictive deadlines such as Early Decision or Restrictive Early Action, which both saw falls, the analysis found.

Early Action saw an uptick of 6.2%, while priority deadlines jumped by 238%, according to the report.

It suggested that although applications to selective private universities and large public universities have increased this year, the data “seems to be telling a different story” for less selective institutions across the country – particularly in the Northeast, Midwest and Mid-Atlantic.

Universities in North Carolina, Virginia & Michigan saw the biggest increases in applications, it added.

“A continuing overall decline in domestic high school students means that, for US universities, successful international student enrolment is arguably more vital than ever,” the report said.

“International higher admissions has ground to make up in the aftermath of a year where international student enrolment to US institutions fell by 43%.”

An ICE report recently published found that US schools, catering to a range of age levels, saw a 72% decrease in new international student enrolment in 2020 compared to 2019. It also highlighted that the Northeast, which it said was an early epicentre for Covid-19, saw a decrease of 19.4% – making it the region with the greatest decline in international student records from 2019 to 2020.

Data from the Common App has shown institutions such as Harvard University experiencing a 42% increase in applications in 2020/21 and public universities like the University of Virginia seeing a 15% increase.

The research from BridgeU also found that international students are submitting more applications to QS Top 50 universities, with applications to Top 50 institutions increasing by 4%.

The 2020/21 application cycle has the potential to be a “watershed moment”, researchers said, as data begins to indicate a “first glimpse of what a post-Covid admissions landscape could look like”.

In several key respects, international student applicants to the US have much in common with their domestic counterparts, the report suggested.

“With the arrival of more flexible, test-optional admissions policies, international students have joined domestic students in choosing to be more ambitious with their applications,” it said.

International and domestic students opting for lower-ranked institutions “poses a challenge for these institutions in the years to come, as they seek to differentiate their brand and promote the benefits of their unique college experience”, researchers added.

“Some US universities have continued to prosper in a year of general decline for admissions and enrolment teams, but these have mostly been institutions with strong pre-existing global brand recognition,” said BridgeU founder and CEO Lucy Stonehill.

“The challenges that will define US international student recruitment in the years to come have not gone away.

“Universities across the USA must find new ways to meet students where they are”

“Universities across the USA must find new ways to meet students where they are, at a time when new technologies and digital infrastructures are changing the nature of how prospective applicants engage with, and select, higher education institutions.”

The report also suggested that US institutions may be enjoying a small ‘Brexit bounce’ as Europe was the only major region to witness year-on-year increases in international applications.

While the region saw a 4.2% increase in BridgeU applications, applications from Asia fell by -13%, Americas by -10.2%, Africa by -3.4% and Middle East by -1.2%.

Questions remain as to whether increased interest in top-ranked institutions can merely be attributed
to test-optional admissions or whether international students are now more likely to apply to a university based on its academic prestige, as opposed to more holistic considerations around ‘college fit’, the report suggested.

It is also unclear whether 2021 is an anomalous year or the start of a new trend in international admissions.

“The new post-Covid world is here, but it has yet to fully come into focus,” it concluded.

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