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International college student enrollment up after pandemic slump

Krentzman Quadrangle on the campus of Northeastern University. Northeastern University attracts the second largest number of international students nationwide, after New York University.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

The pandemic significantly curbed the number of international students who enrolled in Massachusetts colleges and universities last year, a new report has found. The 10 percent drop is yet another reminder of the steep, lasting economic impact the virus has had on one of this region’s most important industries.

Nationwide the drop was steeper, with 15 percent fewer international students coming to the US during the 2020-2021 academic year than the year prior. The sharpest drop by far was among new students, with 46 percent fewer choosing to enroll in US colleges, according to the 2021 Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange, an annual survey published by the Institute of International Education and the US Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.


In recent decades, foreign students, who nearly all pay full tuition, have become an increasingly critical revenue stream for colleges, especially many tuition-dependent schools without large endowments. Massachusetts hosts the fourth largest number of foreign students after California, New York, and Texas. It welcomed 66,000 students last year, down from 74,000 the 2019-2020 academic year.

Despite last year’s drop, students appear to be returning this year. A second report from the organizations shows that new student enrollments rebounded 68 percent this fall and the total number of international students increased by 4 percent, according to the data.

“We are seeing students very much wanting a US education,” said Ben Waxman, CEO of Intead, an international education marketing firm that performs research on international student trends.

Since the 1960s, the number of international students coming to the US has been on a steady upward trajectory. Students from other parts of the world, particularly China and India, are drawn to the creative and critical thinking valued in the US education system and to the networking and job opportunities in the US, Waxman said.


The rate of foreign student growth slowed during Donald Trump’s presidency, as racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric proliferated, and in 2019-2020 it declined for the first time in decades, by 1.8 percent.

The impact of these global trends is felt particularly acutely in Massachusetts. Northeastern University attracts the second largest number of international students nationwide, after New York University. Some 16,000 foreign students enrolled at NU last academic year. Boston University is also among the top 10 destinations nationwide, according to the Open Doors report.

China has long sent the most students to the US and to Massachusetts each year. Chinese students made up slightly more than a third of students in Massachusetts last year. India sent the second greatest number to this state, followed by South Korea, Canada, and Vietnam.

Waxman said there is still some hesitance among Chinese families to send their children to the US because of how it has handled the COVID-19 pandemic. State media in China has played up the idea that the US is the “wild west” in terms of curbing the virus, he said.

“There are definitely questions there about ‘Is it safe for my kid?’” he said.

As has long been the case, most international students pursued STEM majors, the report found, with engineering continuing to be the most popular major. Intensive English programs were the most adversely affected by the pandemic, the report found, because many were canceled or postponed.

As travel restrictions ease, international recruiters are beginning to travel again. Don McMillan, a private education consultant, this week gave his first talk abroad since the pandemic began. He spoke to a group of prospective students in Geneva, he said.


“We are seeing a major rebound in international applicants for this coming year,” McMillan wrote in an e-mail.

He attributed the interest not only to strong progress vaccinating students and faculty and a re-opening of physical borders, but also to the more welcoming posture of the Biden administration.

Another factor is also attracting students, he said. During the pandemic many more institutions adopted test-optional admissions policies, which makes it easier for students to apply because they don’t have to take standardized tests.

“Actually it means thousands more will ‘toss in an application,’” he said.