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Colleges anticipate big drop in international student enrollment due to coronavirus pandemic

Marsh Plaza on Boston University's Campus. In the 2018-19 school year, there were nearly 1.1 million international students in the United States and the Boston area.
Marsh Plaza on Boston University's Campus. In the 2018-19 school year, there were nearly 1.1 million international students in the United States and the Boston area.Blake Nissen for The Boston Globe

Stricter US visa policies and anti-immigration rhetoric have slowly eroded international student enrollment at American colleges and universities in recent years, but the coronavirus pandemic is shaping up to be a far greater threat and could sharpen the financial pain for many institutions.

Close to 90 percent of US colleges and universities are preparing for a drop in international enrollment for this upcoming academic year, and nearly a third of those institutions expect the decline to be substantial, according to a survey released Thursday by the Institute of International Education.

Foreign student enrollment is likely to fall because many will be unable to get visas or flights to the US in time for classes in September, due to travel restrictions around the world. Other students may be turned off by the remote learning options offered by American colleges, experts said.

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The institute’s report offers the first comprehensive survey of the impact that the virus could have on the international student market. The organization, which publishes the annual Open Doors report tracking international student enrollment across US higher education, questioned nearly 600 colleges and universities, serving more than half a million foreign students for this survey.

Many institutions are concerned about the long-term impact the virus will have on international students, said Mirka Martel, the head of research, evaluation, and learning at the institute.

“They are thinking about internationalization moving forward, and how international education may change and evolve post‐COVID‐19,” Martel said.

International students have been a lucrative market for American universities. Many foreign students pay full tuition, helping offset discounts offered to lure American undergraduates to campus, and ensuring that university budgets remain in the black. International students also bring a diversity of experience and skills to campuses and help power the cutting edge research done at the graduate level, university leaders have said.

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In the 2018-19 school year, there were nearly 1.1 million international students in the United States, and the Boston area, in particular, with its rich selection of big-name colleges, has been a draw. About 71,100 students from abroad study in Massachusetts, with the largest shares attending Northeastern University (16,000 students), Boston University (10,600 students), Harvard University (6,220 students), and MIT (5,070 students).

The pandemic’s short-term impact is likely to be drastic, higher education experts note.

“International enrollment is going to plummet like a rock,” said Ben Waxman, the chief executive officer of International Education Advantage, a Boston-area marketing firm that helps academic institutions with their international branding. “The financial impact is huge, and absolutely devastating.”

Area colleges say it is too early to tell how much international enrollments will decline or predict the subsequent financial toll. Adding to the anxiety, many institutions are also trying to shore up their domestic student numbers and are uncertain about how many US students will show up for classes this September.

Northeastern has expanded its wait-list for prospective students and is developing high-quality online programs for students who can’t return, officials have said. Northeastern also has campuses in Canada and London and is working on plans that would allow international undergraduate and graduate students to transfer between campuses, allowing them to start at a location that may be more easily accessible to them, said Renata Nyul, the university’s spokeswoman.

“We are confident that we will be able to enroll an academically strong and globally diverse class in the fall,” Nyul said.

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Boston College is also planning to use its waitlist of US students to fill any gaps left by international students, said Jack Dunn, the college’s spokesman.

International students make up about 8 percent of the institution’s 9,300 undergraduate students, Dunn said.

“As with all colleges and universities, we are concerned that some students will not be able to travel to the United States because of visa issues or travel restrictions,” Dunn said. “Given that we are not as dependent on international students as many other local institutions, we would offset any reduction through wait-listed domestic applicants.”

Universities are trying to deal with potential problems on multiple fronts as they prepare for fall, higher education experts said.

Many colleges are still trying to decide whether it will be safe and financially feasible to bring their students back to campus in August or if they should offer online courses, at least to start the semester.

At best, many international students will have to study online this upcoming academic year, simply because they can’t get to the US in time, said Tom Dretler, cofounder of Shorelight Education, a Boston-based company that helps recruit and manage the first-year international student experience for 22 US universities, including University of Massachusetts campuses.

American consulate offices abroad, which conduct the in-person interviews for new student visas, are handling many fewer cases, if any, Dretler said.

In some countries, new appointments have been postponed until November, he said.

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“International students will have to start a fall semester online,” Dretler said. “It’s not whether the university plans to open. It’s whether students need visas, which they can’t get right now, and flights into the country, which they can’t get right now.”

It remains unclear whether foreign students will accept the online education in large numbers.

Dretler said his company is still seeing increased interest from foreign students in enrolling in US colleges for summer and fall programs. But universities have to offer these students a more engaging online experience than they did in the spring, with classes available during convenient times and ways to interact with their peers.

“They want the education for sure,” Dretler said. “They want it on campus, if they can get it. If it has to be online, they’ll do it, if it’s in a manner that works for them. They’re not going to participate in Zoom classes in the middle of the night.”

But studying abroad isn’t simply about the academic experience — it’s also about being away from home and immersed in American culture, said Stephanie Hall, a fellow at the Century Foundation, a think-tank.

“If that’s not an option, they’ll look for a different experience,” Hall said.

Some students may choose to defer for a year or look at institutions in their own country, she said.

Top-tier universities may be able to hold on to their international students, but smaller, less well-known campuses are likely to struggle, she said.

During the last recession a decade ago, many institutions, including public universities were able to survive state budget cuts and less local funding, because they recruited foreign students who were willing to pay for an American educational experience.

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That is not an option this time, Hall said.

“It will be a loss to the US colleges, to their coffers and the US economy,” she said.


Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.