Chittawan Boonsitanon started junior year at Michigan State University last week from his home in Bangkok, 8,500 miles and half a world away. Boonsitanon said many international students decided months ago to take classes online, before Michigan State administrators in mid-August urged all undergraduates to stay home.
Between the coronavirus pandemic and racial justice protests rocking America, returning to East Lansing didn’t seem like a good idea. “It’s the health and safety of the United States that really concerns us,” Boonsitanon said.
Administrators at Michigan State and other public colleges and universities nationwide say they expect fewer new international students to enroll this fall because of visa delays and safety fears.
Enrolling fewer international students who pay a premium — Michigan State charges international students over $41,000 a year in tuition, almost triple what local students pay — will be another financial blow. Colleges already face falling revenue from closed dorms, canceled football games and state budget cuts along with rising costs from increased cleaning and COVID-19 testing.
That lost revenue could diminish the amenities available to all students. Fewer international students also will mean fewer chances for American students to be exposed to someone from a different culture. Such interactions are “priceless,” said Robbyn Wacker, president of St. Cloud State University in St. Cloud, Minnesota.
Organizations that support international education are projecting big drops in international enrollment and related tuition revenue this fall.
“When pressed, we’ve estimated a 25 or 30% [enrollment] decline, but I hesitate to put a number on it,” said Brad Farnsworth, vice president of global engagement at the American Council on Education, a Washington, D.C.-based higher education membership organization.
Public and private universities in the United States could collectively experience a $3 billion revenue decline as international students stay away this fall, according to an April survey from NAFSA: Association of International Educators, a D.C.-based nonprofit.
College leaders, however, give a range of estimates. The University of Washington, for instance, typically admits a freshman class of 7,000 students, with 1,000 from overseas. “We’re still very much on track to having the entering class I described,” said Jeffrey Riedinger, vice provost for global affairs.
Trump administration officials, meanwhile, have long said some international students should be kept out of the country. In May, President Donald Trump canceled the visas of Chinese graduate students who are directly or indirectly associated with the Chinese military.
"Look, not every Chinese student who is here is working on behalf of or at the behest of, the direction of the Chinese Communist Party," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a recent interview with Mary Walter of WMAL, a Washington, D.C.-based radio station, “but it’s something President Trump has taken a serious, serious look at.”
Although Chinese students still comprise the largest group of international students in the United States, the Trump administration’s rhetoric has made many such students more reluctant to come here, college administrators and higher education experts say.
It won’t be clear until next year how many overseas freshmen Michigan State will lose, as many students who deferred fall enrollment plan to enroll in the spring, said Patty Croom, director of international admissions, recruitment and student success at the university. Last fall Michigan State welcomed 8,570 freshmen, about 7% from overseas.
Croom said international students and families are understandably concerned. The coronavirus is so pervasive in the United States that the European Union has closed its borders to U.S. residents. “Why would you send your 18-year-old here?” she asked.
Hundreds of colleges and universities nationwide have reported coronavirus outbreaks since the school year began. Over 88,000 coronavirus cases have been linked to college campuses since the pandemic began, according to the New York Times. Michigan State, which has shifted to mostly online classes, has reported 155 cases among students and staff since the beginning of August, compared with 93 cases at the University of Michigan. St. Cloud State has announced one case, according to the Times.
Some college leaders fear that the pandemic could be a tipping point for international students. Already, Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and immigration restrictions have made many think twice about studying and launching careers here. Even if Trump were replaced with a more immigration-friendly president, it could take years for international enrollments to recover, college administrators say.
“For me, I worry about the long-term implications,” Wacker said. “So we may get through COVID in the fall, but what’s the tail of this, in terms of international enrollments?”
Others are more hopeful. International enrollments will recover eventually, just as they have done after past crises, said Dennis Dunham, executive director of the Office of Global Affairs at the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond, Oklahoma. “I do think it will recover, because America’s education system is still considered one of the best, if not the best in the world.”
The number of international students in the United States has been rising for decades and increased rapidly after the Great Recession. Last year more than a million such students studied or were engaged in post-graduate training here, according to the Institute of International Education, a New York-based nonprofit. That’s about 5.5% of all students at U.S. colleges and universities. About half of international students come from China and India.
Since Trump’s election, international students have continued to enroll in U.S. colleges, but the growth rate has slowed. Between the 2017-18 and 2018-19 academic years, the number of international students grew by a fraction of a percent, according to the Institute of International Education.
International students who are in the middle of a degree program are likely to stay enrolled this year, university administrators say. Many such students never went home in the spring because they couldn’t get a flight, were taking summer courses or were working on research projects.
Han Seth Lu, a senior majoring in early childhood education at Central Oklahoma, couldn’t get a flight home to Myanmar in the spring — and didn’t feel safe flying then anyway — so he decided to stay in Edmond and take summer classes. “My country was pretty much shut down,” he said.
But administrators say they’re expecting to welcome fewer new international students to campus this fall. It was impossible for many students to get a visa in the spring and summer, when U.S. embassies and consulates shut down because of the pandemic.
Some international students who can’t physically make it to the United States are enrolling but studying online. Others are deferring. And some are pursuing higher education elsewhere.
Shahzad Ahmad, associate vice president of the center for international studies at St. Cloud State, said he recently heard from an admitted student from Peru who was hoping to travel to the U.S. embassy in Ecuador to get a visa, as the U.S. embassy in Peru has not yet resumed visa appointments.
Thirty-five first-year international students, about half the usual number, couldn’t make it to St. Cloud this fall because of visa delays, Ahmad said.
Other universities are reporting even steeper enrollment declines.
“We lost about 200 students at our university just because the consulates didn’t open,” said Dunham of Central Oklahoma. Only about 60 new undergraduate and graduate students from other countries will enroll this year, far fewer than the 230 the university anticipated.
“You can literally translate that into millions of dollars,” Dunham said. Full-time international undergraduates at Central Oklahoma pay over $15,000 in tuition a year, not including activity and course fees, while in-state students pay about $6,000.
College administrators say the prevalence of COVID-19 and news coverage of violent U.S. protests — even protests far from college towns — have made many students and families think twice about coming here. “As far as they know, you walk out your door and rioting is happening,” Dunham said.
Boonsitanon said international students are alarmed that many Americans are refusing to wear face masks, a proven strategy for reducing the spread of the virus and a common practice in Asia even before COVID-19.
U.S.-Chinese political tension and news reports of Americans harassing East Asians and blaming them for the pandemic also have made Chinese students hesitate, Farnsworth said. “All of that gets enormous coverage in China,” he said of racist incidents.
Trump and his allies often call COVID-19 the “kung-flu” or the “Chinese virus” because it emerged in Wuhan, China.
Like many domestic students, some international students face challenges such as worsening family finances and spotty internet that could make it harder for them to keep up with their coursework.
Central Oklahoma opened a food pantry for international students this summer. On-campus jobs — the easiest and sometimes only way student visa holders can legally work in the United States — disappeared when the campus shut down in March, Lu said.
At the same time, some students’ family incomes plummeted because of public health restrictions and the global recession. Lu said his parents had to shut down their textile and clothing store for a month and a half.
Studying online won’t be easy for international students. Many face big time-zone differences between their homes and their classrooms. Students in China also must contend with government censorship and surveillance online.
Nikunj Agarwal, a junior at Michigan State, spoke to Stateline from his home in Bangalore at about 1:15 a.m., Indian Standard Time, or about 3 p.m. in Michigan. “This is basically my new life,” he joked. While some of his classes are recorded lectures he can watch anytime, he must tune into some live courses late at night.
International students also know their degrees have an uncertain payoff. Under Trump, it’s become more difficult for skilled immigrants to get work visas. In June, citing the pandemic, Trump suspended certain temporary work and study exchange visas for 60 days.
Neither Agarwal nor Boonsitanon, who are both studying business, expect to land a job here.
“It’s already hard for international students to get jobs in the U.S. and now this — it’s going to be even more challenging,” Boonsitanon said of the pandemic. “So I don’t plan to remain in the United States.”
Other English-speaking countries, such as the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, make it easier for graduates of their colleges and universities to stay there and work. Institutions in those countries have become tempting alternatives to American colleges.
“There’s a lot of reasons why international students choose the United States,” Boonsitanon said, starting with the academic reputations of U.S. institutions. “But I can tell you that the dynamics are certainly changing.”
Agarwal said he loves Michigan State and is grateful for his time there. But he’s urging his sister, a high school senior, not to follow his example. “I personally encouraged her not to apply to the United States, just seeing the political instability of the country,” he said. Plus, there’s the frustrating process of getting a work visa.
“Go to countries that actually want you there,” he said, “and not make you feel like a burden to them, not make you feel unwanted.”