International Student Enrollment Rising at U.S. Colleges, but Pandemic Obstacles Remain

According to a recent report by the Institute of International Education, international student enrollment at U.S. colleges and universities has rebounded slightly this year after a significant decline during the COVID-19 pandemic. While this data gives reason for optimism, pandemic-related challenges remain for international students. 

Significant Decline in International Student Enrollment

In early 2020, the world effectively ground to a halt due to COVID-19. So, it was no surprise that American colleges and universities were hard-hit by the pandemic’s unrelenting effects. While many schools frantically sought to accommodate virtual learning programs, most campuses shut their doors. 

As a result of the closures and restrictions on international travel, the total number of international students at U.S. universities dropped by a staggering 15%, from 1,075,496 students in the 2019-2020 school year to just 914,095 in 2020-2021. While international student enrollment had been sluggish previously, last year’s precipitous decline was certainly a product of the exceptional circumstances of the pandemic. 

Signs of Rebound 

Although the data is not complete for 2021, preliminary reports suggest a rebound in international student enrollment. A “fall snapshot” released by the Institute of International Education highlights the trend. Data from 2021 indicates an increase of 4% in overall international student enrollment at American colleges and universities. While the increase does not offset the tremendous decline of last year, college officials have expressed cautious optimism regarding the trend reversal. 

Other sources support a reversal of the pandemic-related decline. According to a recent article in U.S. News and World Report, the CommonApp, the standardized college application portal, reports a 51% year-over-year increase in international student college applications. However, application rates do not necessarily correspond to enrollment rates, as students must first navigate the complex visa process in order to begin their course of study. 

International Student Enrollment in Pennsylvania

Similar to other states, Pennsylvania is witnessing an increase in international student enrollment. According to a recent Pennlive article, Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh saw international enrollment spike 19.8% this year. Smaller colleges like Dickinson College in Carlisle and Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster reported increases as well.

Penn State University reported a slight increase in international student enrollment, only 0.8%, but this was offset by a 64.3% spike in enrollment in World Campus, the university’s online campus. 

Whether the impacts of the pandemic result in increasing utilization of online learning programs remains to be seen. 

Obstacles Moving Forward

With the world still in the grip of COVID-19, obstacles remain for international students hoping to study in the United States. While vaccination supplies are plentiful in the United States, many countries do not have the same resources. International students will be forced to undergo strict travel protocols to enter the United States to study. 

Additionally, international students continue to battle visa backlogs at U.S. embassies and consulates, adding additional delays. In fact, the backlog is so pronounced, U.S. senators recently penned a letter to the State Department asking that it do “everything it can” to remedy the situation. 

Certainly, recent data indicates the beginning of a return to normal. Although obstacles remain, the trend is in the right direction. 

To learn more about this blog post, or if you have any other immigration concerns, please feel free to contact me at or (484) 544-0022.

Share This