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Why the USA Remains a Welcoming Place for International Students

The world has been grappling with the coronavirus for almost a year now. Despite the approval of at least two vaccines already, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to change the world as we knew it.


For one thing, the border closures have affected industries across the board and the international education industry has been one of the hardest-hit sectors. This year, the health crisis has radically cut international student enrollment in US colleges and universities, as expected.

Status of US International Enrollment

According to the recent Open Doors survey, for this particular school year, the new enrollment of international students dropped by 43 percent. Most of the incoming freshmen have postponed their enrollment while some took advantage of the option to begin their studies remotely. Among the one million enrolled international students in the US, 20 percent turned to online learning this semester because of pandemic-related campus shutdowns. Some international students have returned to their home countries, while others are living off-campus.


Also, because of the difficulty of the economic situation, students and families deferred their payment of costly tuition and fees. Many requested refunds and discounts for lack of dining and housing facilities, from which universities derive major student revenue. International students comprise 5.5 percent of the 19,720,000 students enrolled in US higher education.


NAFSA: Association of International Educators found that the 2020 international enrollment drop cost the US economy $1.8 billion. This is a 4.4% drop from the previous academic year. It was the first time that the international students’ contribution to the revenues of US colleges and universities dropped in 20 years.

Changing Nonimmigrant Visa Requirements

Recognizing the positive impact of international students and with the US wanting to alleviate the hardships of foreign students enrolling for the fall semester, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has announced its plan for temporary modifications to F-1 and M-1 nonimmigrant visa requirements for the semester.

This allowed a combination of both in-person and some online coursework to meet the requirements for nonimmigrant student status. This temporary accommodation provided greater flexibility for nonimmigrant students to continue their education in the United States, while also allowing social distancing on open and operating campuses across America.

Students should check with the local U.S. embassy or consulate for information specific to their country.

Adjustments to Travel and Immigration Rules

On December 4, 2020, the NAFSA: Association of International Educators signed on to a multi-association letter led by the American Council on Education (ACE), asking the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) to issue COVID-19 guidance for the Spring 2021 term “as soon as possible,” and to provide for “maximum flexibility.”

As a response, the DHS has announced that the federal SEVP guidelines for international students will remain hybrid for the Spring 2021 semester. Holders of nonimmigrant F and M visa who are enrolled in US schools in March 2020 and who subsequently took courses online while outside the country can re-enter the US even if their school is engaged solely in remote instruction.

Those students enrolled after March 9 will only be allowed to enter as a nonimmigrant student to pursue hybrid coursework for the spring term. Moreover, federal regulations limit nonimmigrant F and M students to one online course per school term. 

Road to Reopening

Around the middle of the year, the US made some moves to help international students who are asking for a way to return to the country, one of which is the resumption of intercontinental air services to bring students and scholars to the US. Consulates also reopened and gave priority to processing student visas.

By October 2020, this was the current status of visa processing and travel from countries that send the most students to the United States:

Updates from Top 5 Sending Countries to the United States

South Korea The Consular Section at the U.S. Embassy reopened for non-immigrant visa processing on July 20.All of the standard tests for U.S. college admissions such as SAT, ACT, GRE, TOEFL, etc. are being scheduled regularly. International travel to and from South Korea has largely returned to normal, with some additional restrictions.
India Consular sections at the U.S. Embassy and Consulates across India are now accepting applications for F, M, and J visa renewals, as well as H and L visa renewals for those who qualify for an exception at Visa Application Centers across India. While most schools are still closed, the College Board has been permitted to offer the SAT at a limited number of testing centers. Some 54 schools were listed as official SAT centers for the September 26 test. The College Board is also working with testing centers to make decisions about AP tests for the 2021 testing cycle. TOEFL, GRE, and the GMAT are being offered at testing centers around the country. Despite the ongoing international travel suspension, which prevents Indian citizens from traveling abroad until September 30, students may be able to travel to the U.S. through the special air bubble flights that have been organized between India and the U.S., per India's Ministry of Civil Aviation
Saudi Arabia The U.S. Embassy Riyadh and the Consulates General in Dhahran and Jeddah have resumed limited visa appointments for student visa applicants applying for F, M, and J visa categories only. Visa appointment availability remains severely limited and priority is being given to students who have previously been issued U.S. student visas and whose study start dates are imminent. Testing availability is limited. Current students who are in Saudi Arabia need permission from the Ministry of Education (MOE) to return to the United States and will need to arrange a ticket through the MOE.
China Student visa appointments remain suspended while the Consular Section at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and U.S. Consulates throughout China remain closed until processing may resume.The TOEFL ITP Plus for China solution opened registration on May 15 and will be available until TOEFL iBT testing resumes in Mainland China. The Duolingo English Test3 has gained popularity as students may take the exam online from home with score reports delivered in approximately 48 hours. There is currently a significant reduction of commercial flight options both to and from China. The United States continues to restrict the entry of travelers from China unless travelers quarantine elsewhere for 14 days before arrival to the United States.
Canada Consular services for student visas are not currently available. Canadian citizens do not need student visas; these services are for third-country nationals in Canada Testing for SAT and ACT is currently being offered at about half of the normal level. However, there have been reports of test cancellations. Online testing for exams such as TOEFL, Duolingo, IELTS, and GRE is widely available.Air travel to and from the United States is allowed pending flight availability from major airports. Only essential travel is allowed by land and sea.

Supporting Students in Remote Learning

Aside from ensuring that international students are learning through their remote classes, US colleges and universities have gone beyond just providing online classes. They have also made counseling services available online especially for those international students who are encountering challenges as they juggle class schedules in different time zones. Institutions have also invested huge resources to guarantee that learning materials are accessible anywhere the students are. To break the monotonous online class setup and to bring dynamics to the routine of the students, universities also began organizing virtual fairs and student activities.

Increased Student Recruitment Initiatives

The whole education sector in the United States recognizes the decline in the trends in higher education and, as a result, colleges and universities are working hand in hand to bring the global learners back to the top academic destination. Updates on student visa policies and adjustments to travel restrictions are cascaded across online platforms to allow students in all parts of the globe to know about the developments. Institutions have organized virtual fairs, free lectures, and other similar activities online to keep the foreign students engaged and aware of the benefits of international studies. Institutions have also signed up for partnerships with international education management providers to invigorate the student recruitment process amid the pandemic. I believe the United States will remain a welcoming place for international students and will continue to be the number one destination for higher education for years to come.

#PartnerForLife #HigherEducation #StudentRecruitment #InternationalEducation #MSM

MSM Research_President, MSM USA

President, MSM USA

Dr. Alex Parnia brings more than 35 years of experience performing a variety of successful roles at various academic institutions as a faculty member, campus Dean, Vice-President of Marketing and Enrollment, Executive Vice- President, Provost, and President. He specializes in crafting innovative and scalable solutions and matrices to enable exponential revenue increases for academic institutions. His list of commendable triumphs is never-ending and he has also created leadership programs and taught management and business courses at various academic institutions.

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Data Sources:

Di Maria, D. L. (2020, December 08). US colleges report a 43% decline in new international student enrollment, and not just because of the pandemic. Retrieved December 18, 2020, from https://theconversation.com/us-colleges-report-a-43-decline-in-new-international-student-enrollment-and-not-just-because-of-the-pandemic-149885

Surveys show foreign enrollment declines in the US in 2019/20 and the impact of COVID-19. (2020, November 18). Retrieved December 18, 2020, from https://monitor.icef.com/2020/11/survey-data-shows-covids-impact-on-foreign-enrolment-in-us-following-decline-in-2019-20/

Reopening International Exchange. (n.d.). Retrieved December 18, 2020, from https://www.iie.org/Research-and-Insights/Publications/Reopening-International-Exchange

Report urges US educators to innovate in the face of declining international enrolments. (2020, November 04). Retrieved December 18, 2020, from https://monitor.icef.com/2020/11/report-urges-us-educators-to-innovate-in-the-face-of-declining-international-enrolments/\

SEVP COVID-19 Guidance Sources. (2020, December 09). Retrieved December 18, 2020, from https://www.nafsa.org/regulatory-information/sevp-covid-19-guidance-sources


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