A student carries her bags in front of a sign for the University of Dayton

COVID-19 shakes up international student life — and university budgets

More than a month after the coronavirus pandemic shut down US universities, international students continue to face uncertainty over what the coming school year will look like — some aren't sure if they would be able to come back to campus. What kind of financial hit could US universities expect if there's a drop in enrollment among international students?

The World

When the novel coronavirus pandemic forced US university closures in March, Julia Jing, a sophomore at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, wasn't sure if she should return home to Beijing or to stay in the US. 

The journalism and art design student eventually purchased a ticket home to China, but that flight was canceled. Jing has since been hunkering down in her apartment near campus and taking classes remotely. But she’s also spending a lot of her time contacting the US embassy in China and trying to figure out what she’ll do next. 

“It’s hard to connect with the embassies. They didn't answer my phone and they didn't reply to my email. And I don't know what to do right now.”

Julia Jing, sophomore, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

“It’s hard to connect with the embassies. They didn't answer my phone and they didn't reply to my email,” Jing said. “And I don't know what to do right now.”

An estimated 1.1 million international students were enrolled at US universities during the 2018-19 academic year. And by paying tuition, renting apartments and buying books and supplies, they contributed an estimated $41 billion to the US economy, according to NAFSA: Association of International Educators. 

But those students have been forced to scramble as universities across the country closed in-person education this spring to slow the spread of the virus. Some who lived on campus had to find a new place to live, while others rushed to get back to their home countries before flights were canceled or national governments shut down borders. There is still uncertainty about what the coming academic year will look like for international students. Some, like Jing, aren’t sure if they’ll be able to return to campus in the fall. 

Related: International students displaced by COVID-19 face headaches with online classes

Her student visa expires in June, and the US government requires her to return to China to renew it. But flight cancellations may stretch into the coming months, and services at US embassies may still be suspended this summer. And if Jing does go home and can’t renew her visa, she’s not sure if she will be able to return to Illinois and enroll in the fall.

“If I cannot come back, I would just get a year off and stay in China,” she said. 

The American Council on Education predicts that “enrollment for the next academic year will drop by 15%, including a projected decline of 25% for international students,” according to letters it submitted to Congress. That could have serious effects on institutions' budgets. The organization is advocating for more financial aid for higher education institutions to mitigate the effects of the crisis.

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The potential decline is a troubling scenario for many in higher education. 

International students typically pay full tuition at colleges, which means they pay higher rates compared to most domestic students, said Dick Startz, an economics professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. 

“Universities all use that money to help subsidize the education of American students. If we lost a whole lot of our international students, a lot of universities would have a really serious financial shock.”

Dick Startz, economics professor, University of California, Santa Barbara 

“Universities all use that money to help subsidize the education of American students,” Startz said. “If we lost a whole lot of our international students, a lot of universities would have a really serious financial shock.”

Already, since 2016 fewer new international students have been choosing to study in the US. Higher education experts attribute that decline to the Trump administration’s stricter immigration policies and anti-immigrant rhetoric. 

Rachel Banks, senior director for public policy and legislative strategy with NAFSA, said the pandemic will only accelerate the decline. If the number of international students falls, Banks says, the impacts will not just be financial, but could also extend to research and the overall academic learning environment of universities.

Related: Indians stranded in the US due to coronavirus face headaches for online classes

“At the graduate level, a majority of international students are here studying ... in STEM fields, and they serve a role on campus as student teachers, supporting faculty and working in research labs,” said Banks.

Universities say they are preparing for all possible scenarios and potential financial losses. But many questions remain unanswered. For example, it’s unclear if international travel will still be limited in the coming months. The overall health of the global economy could impact international students’ ability to enroll. And it’s uncertain if US embassies and consulates around the world will be able to open up and issue student visas for those that need them in time for the fall. 

Another big question is whether the Department of Homeland Security will allow current international students to take classes online next semester. Typically, those with student visas can only count one online class to their full course to remain eligible. But the agency temporarily suspended the rule in light of the pandemic this spring. It’s also unclear if newly admitted international students would be allowed to take classes remotely.

“We don’t know what it’s going to look like in August,” said Martin McFarlane, director of International Student and Scholar Services at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign said. “But these things are going to be restricting for returning students, just like they’re going to be restricting to new students, as well.”

At the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, McFarlane said accepted international students still have a lot of interest in coming to the US.

“I did speak to the admissions office very recently,” said McFarlane. “They say the number of international students accepting their offer remains on pace with what we've seen in recent years. Our incoming class at the moment are hopeful and believe they're going to be able to attend and fall.” 

Jing also wonders how new international students will fare in the fall, especially if classes are remote. She said she decided to study in the US for the experience of being on campus and meeting new people. 

“I like to experience the life here, how you join some clubs, hang out with friends ... having this experience is more special for me,” Jing said.

She hopes to be able to continue studying in Illinois in the fall and to be with her friends, but if classes continue to be remote, she said she’ll enroll to make sure she can graduate on time.  

“I'm worried about my future,” she said. 

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