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After the Pandemic’s Dark Days, the Outlook for International Enrollments May Be Brightening

American colleges are anticipating a pickup in international enrollments this fall, with two-thirds reporting an increase in overseas applicants, according to a new survey from the Institute of International Education.

Sixty-five percent of colleges saw growth in applications from abroad for the 2022-23 academic year, while just 12 percent reported declines, the institute’s Spring 2022 Snapshot on International Educational Exchange found. In a snapshot survey conducted a year ago, 43 percent of institutions said international applications were up — and nearly as many, 38 percent, saw decreases.

International enrollments fell more sharply during the Covid-19 pandemic than for any other demographic group at American colleges, dropping 15 percent in 2020. With borders closed and consulates shuttered, the decline in new foreign students was especially precipitous, plummeting 46 percent that fall.

Although the impact of Covid was particularly punishing — it dwarfed the decline in international-student numbers in the years following the September 11 terror attacks — it also obscured some underlying weaknesses in international mobility to the United States. Prior to the pandemic, the number of new international students at American colleges had decreased for four years in a row.

With Covid-related travel and visa restrictions beginning to lift, international enrollments began to recover last fall, increasing by 4 percent. The new application data suggest that rebound could continue, and perhaps even more robustly.

Mirka Martel, head of research for in the institute, said the spring trend “leaves us quite optimistic about the future of international students in the United States.”

Still, the recovery may be uneven. Three-quarters of doctoral universities and master’s colleges and universities reported application increases, according to the snapshot survey, while only half of liberal-arts colleges did.

Here are a few more notable findings from the spring survey:

International-student recruitment may have changed long term. For the first time since the start of the pandemic, a substantial share of colleges are resuming international recruitment travel — 43 percent said they were doing some in-person recruitment globally.

While Covid forced many colleges to turn to virtual recruitment, it seems here to stay: Nine in 10 respondents said they were continuing to participate in online recruitment events. Martel noted that the virtual option lets colleges reach students in places they might not otherwise visit on recruitment trips.

Two-thirds of colleges reported using paid overseas-recruitment agents, a practice that had previously been controversial.

Americans are once again going abroad, but with more precautions in place. More than 80 percent of colleges expect study-abroad participation to increase in the coming academic year.

Education abroad has been slow to restart, with most institutions reporting that student numbers remained lower than pre-pandemic levels for the 2021 academic year, partly a result of the emergence of new variants and multiple Covid waves around the globe. When students do go overseas, new health and safety policies will be in place, with eight in 10 colleges requiring study-abroad students to be vaccinated, the survey found. Many institutions are putting additional precautions in place, such as assigning an extra faculty or staff member to faculty-led trips so that there is backup if a program leader falls ill or needs to stay behind with students who test positive for Covid.

In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, colleges are providing support to students from both countries. Colleges said they were issuing statements of support, making mental-health counseling available, and connecting students with legal advice.

The 559 respondents to the snapshot survey account for half the international students at American colleges as well as half of Americans who study abroad, according to the institute.

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