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Shuai “Eddy” Jiang, a rising junior at Boston College, on Acorn Street in Boston. Jiang is from China and chose to remain in Massachusetts through the pandemic. Many colleges and universities anticipate a sharp decrease in international students for fall 2020. Credit: Courtesy of Shuai Eddy Jiang.

When Boston College started emptying dorms and moving classes online because of the coronavirus, Shuai “Eddy” Jiang thought about where he should live during the pandemic.

“The question was if I should go home to China or not,” said Jiang. He’s a rising junior from China’s Henan Province and his family pays his tuition: $56,780. His parents, having seen what coronavirus could do long before the U.S. was struck by it, wanted him to return to China.

But Jiang decided to stay, and his parents support his decision. “They don’t worry about much, except my health,” he said. “And they are fine with paying for school next semester and beyond.”

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Jiang is nearly every college’s dream international student. Not only do students like him bring diversity to campus, they also usually pay full price for their education. The pandemic, however, is likely to put a severe dent in this revenue stream. Institutions are now scrambling to rethink how they recruit and teach students from abroad as they prepare for fall 2020.

“As early as late February, institutions really had to pivot the way that they were recruiting international students traditionally,” said Mirka Martel, head of research, evaluation and learning at the Institute of International Education. About 78 percent of institutions it surveyed are reaching out to international students virtually, according to a May report from IIE on how covid-19 is effecting higher education campuses. Think virtual campus tours and online recruitment events.

About 88 percent of colleges and universities surveyed expect international student enrollment to decline in the 2020-2021 school year and 30 percent expect a “substantial” decline.

Colleges and universities are also easing the financial burden that comes with studying in the U.S. 

“Many institutions have deferred application fees, decision fees, or even deferment fees,” Martel said. Some are using independent agents, who earn fees for successfully recruiting students.

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If fewer international students enroll, the economic fallout will be severe. International students nationwide account for about $2.5 billion in tuition and fees, according to the Brookings Institution. In the 2017-2018 school year, 34 percent of international students were from China.

About 88 percent of institutions surveyed expect international student enrollment to decline in the 2020-2021 school year, according to the IIE, and 30 percent expect a “substantial” decline.

“The pandemic just completely shattered all our plans to grow our international student enrollment,” said Yacob Astatke, assistant vice president for international affairs at Morgan State University, a public historically black institution in Baltimore.

About 7 percent of Morgan State’s students are from abroad. In the 2017-2018 school year, it had more international students than any other historically black college or university. Many come from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

The Kuwaiti government asked all of its citizens at Morgan State to return home and chartered airplanes to pick them up from Dulles and JFK airports, Astatke said.

He expects around a 10 percent decline in international students, who pay almost three times as much as in-state students for full-time tuition.

“The pandemic just completely shattered all our plans to grow our international student enrollment.”

Yacob Astatke, assistant vice president for international affairs at Morgan State University

“We don’t know, after they return home, how many of them will be able to return to the U.S.” Astatke said.

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Before the pandemic, Morgan State had started ramping up its offerings for international students, and it will soon see if these new strategies work. This fall it is opening a campus in Ghana for students to pursue a master’s degree in business administration or global journalism. This month it announced a new partnership with Nigeria’s government intended to bring between 30 and 50 Nigerian Ph. D. students to campus each year, starting in the fall.

Tennessee State University, a public HBCU, is considering allowing students from abroad to complete one semester online from their home country and then return to campus the following semester, said Jewel Winn, the university’s executive director for international programs and chief diversity officer. About 4 percent of Tennessee State students are from abroad.

The university has also hired help for recruitment.

“We’re working with some agents this year, for the first time,” said Winn. “They do all of the legwork with getting the student, and some of them go to the extent of even helping the student to apply and all of that, because that’s how they make their money,” said Winn. An agent’s commission is based on a percentage of the institution’s tuition.

She is uncertain of what international student enrollment will look like in the future at TSU, she said, especially if students can only participate online.

“They don’t really like online learning for the most part and they want the experience of being in the United States and being able to acculturate,” Winn said.

Even though international student enrollment looks endangered now, it may not remain that way. A look at how international student enrollment fared through past health pandemics, such as SARS or Zika, gives insight into what might happen in the wake of Covid-19, said Martel from the Institute of International Education.

“Enrollments do decline, but in previous times when there have been health crises, there have been rebounds,” she said. “For the SARS epidemic, which really affected inbound mobility of Chinese students to the United States in the early 2000s, we did find that enrollment declined for about a year, then it was flat for about another two years, and then it kind of went back up.”

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Delece Smith-Barrow

Delece Smith-Barrow is a senior editor for higher education at The Hechinger Report. She was a 2017 Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan, where she spent a year studying how top-tier universities...

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