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The biggest story in international education over the last decade was, in a word, China.

As the number of students from China studying in the U.S. grew rapidly, fueled by a big increase in tuition-paying undergraduates, colleges and universities grew reliant on them to balance their budgets. And as Chinese universities grew in stature, American colleges created innumerable partnerships with their Chinese counterparts in research and other areas.

Now the global public health crisis precipitated by an outbreak of a new coronavirus, COVID-19, in China -- and the imposition of travel restrictions barring entry to the U.S. of most foreign nationals who have traveled to China within the last 14 days -- threatens student flows and other forms of collaboration. More than 1,100 people have died from the virus, which was first identified in December in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the center of the outbreak.

Some colleges are reporting they have students in China who are unable to return for the spring semester due to travel restrictions. Colleges have canceled study abroad programs and university-sponsored travel to China, including recruitment travel, in response to U.S. government travel warnings. February dates for college entrance exams such as the ACT, TOEFL, IELTS, GMAT and GRE in mainland China have been canceled. Regular visa services at the U.S. embassy in Beijing and consulates in Chengdu, Guangzhou, Shanghai and Shenyang Provinces have been suspended. China remains largely shut down, and schools and universities there have suspended classes.

“This is a blow to many universities, particularly those universities that put so much of their effort into Chinese student recruitment, that in a way became dependent in terms of that cash flow, looking particularly at undergraduates from China,” said William Brustein, vice president for global strategies and international affairs at West Virginia University. Chinese students make up the biggest group of international students in the U.S., accounting for slightly more than a third of all international students at American colleges.

“If this continues and students aren’t able to complete their application by being able to take a TOEFL test or SAT, boy, the bottom line is going to be affected,” Brustein said. “I think it’s going to send a message about dependency in terms of the Chinese flow. I think that is going to be with us for a while even if we’re able to catch our breath from this and things improve dramatically over the next few weeks and we’re able to rebuild that pipeline. I feel that schools are now going to need to take seriously becoming much more open to putting their resources into recruitment in other parts of the world.”

Just how severe the impact will be will depend on many unknown variables, among them: how long the outbreak will last, whether or to what degree it can be relatively contained, when local and international travel restrictions may be lifted, whether Chinese colleges and schools reopen in time to finish their terms more or less on schedule, and how damaging the virus ultimately ends up being to the Chinese -- and indeed the global -- economy. After the SARS outbreak in China in 2003 -- perhaps the closest but in many ways an imperfect parallel -- Chinese enrollments to the U.S. dipped by 4.6 percent in 2003-04 before beginning to recover the following year with a 1.2 percent increase. Chinese student enrollments in the U.S. have increased every year since then.

“We are cautious in not knowing yet what the ultimate outcome will be. What likely will predict how much this will affect international education is how long the health crisis goes on,” said Mirka Martel, the head of research, evaluation and learning at the Institute of International Education, which tracks international enrollments through its annual Open Doors survey. “We do already know that outreach and recruitment are being disrupted. We know that this will likely impact the Chinese economy. We know that enrollments in the short term are being disrupted.”

From an enrollment management perspective, the uncertainty throws yield calculations into serious question. Admission officials at selective institutions in the U.S. will be shaping their classes and finalizing admissions offers over the coming weeks in time to send acceptance letters to students on April 1. It's an open question whether they will be able to count on admitted Chinese students coming at similar rates as in past years.

“Right now, what we can say is that institutions are trying to assess various scenarios and there are going to be varying and diverse ways that institutions deal with it depending on their risk aversion and their flexibility with how they can accommodate going over enrollment,” said Lindsay Addington, director of global engagement at the National Association for College Admission Counseling. She added that there may be a heavier reliance on wait lists. NACAC issued a Jan. 31 statement encouraging colleges to be flexible in their admissions policies for affected prospective students.

As for current Chinese students, because of the timing of the academic calendar, the majority already would have been in the U.S. before the U.S. government travel restrictions were put in place Feb. 1. But colleges with later spring semester starts are already seeing significant impacts on enrollments. The University of Delaware, which started its spring classes this week after a winter session, reported that it has 226 students who were not able to return to campus for the spring semester. The university granted those students the option to take a leave of absence or complete courses online when possible.

Some intensive English language programs are reporting cancellations or deferrals of enrollments, as well as cancellations of short-term customized programs for Chinese students scheduled for February or March, according to Cheryl Delk-Le Good, the executive director of the membership association EnglishUSA. "It’s too early to tell about the summer and fall," she said.

Meanwhile, in Australia, where the fall semester starts in late February or early March, an estimated 107,000 Chinese students -- 56 percent of the total Chinese student population -- are still outside Australia and increasingly unlikely to be able to return in time to resume classes.

“This is the worst possible time for Australian education providers, because it comes at the very start of our academic year,” said Phil Honeywood, CEO of the International Education Association of Australia. “Even many of our continuing students, they went home for Chinese Lunar New Year. They have leases on apartments in Australia, they in some cases have pets in boarding kennels … and they’ve been caught by our government’s travel ban.”

Christopher Ziguras​, a professor of global studies at RMIT University, and Ly Tran, a fellow at Deakin University, both located in Australia, described the coronavirus outbreak as "the biggest disruption to international student flows in history."

"Australia has never experienced such a sudden drop in student numbers," they wrote in an article in The Conversation, a news outlet that features articles written by academics. "The reduced enrollments will have profound impacts on class sizes and the teaching workforce, particularly at master's level in universities with the highest proportions of students from China … If classes are too small, universities will have to cancel them."

Back in the U.S., Cheryl Matherly, vice president and vice provost for international affairs at Lehigh University, a Pennsylvania institution that hosts more than 700 Chinese students and scholars on its campus, said the university has one student in Wuhan and three others who are elsewhere in China unable to return for the spring semester.

“Those are very real impacts here on the community,” she said. “Another thing that’s a near-term immediate impact -- we have a number of graduate programs that were still accepting applicants, and with all the testing centers closed, we’ve had to come up with some emergency or temporary arrangements for students who have not been able to complete their GREs, GMATs, TOEFLs or IELTS. Those are the kinds of things that are very immediate. And then I might add the last one is just being very mindful of the stress that this is putting on our Chinese student community here.”

Like many colleges, Lehigh has reached out to its Chinese students on campus to offer support and make them aware of available resources.

“Next we need to start turning our attention to what happens if this continues,” said Matherly, who is the current president of the Association of International Education Administrators. In addition to outreach to admitted students from China, Matherly said Lehigh officials are looking at possible contingency plans for summer abroad programs.

“We’ve suspended our summer programs in China, but we have a lot of programs that happen in other parts of Asia,” she said. “We have students in Singapore, the Philippines, Kazakhstan -- all places where, depending upon the spread of the virus, this could have some very real impact on the ability to continue with those summer programs.

“More than anything, this is really making clear what we all knew -- how central China is to our international education efforts: inbound, outbound, research collaborations. When we think about all the dimensions that are part of robust international education programs, they all intersect with China,” Matherly said.

Rajika Bhandari, an expert on international enrollment trends and the president and CEO of the IC3 Institute, an organization focused on promoting access to college and career counseling globally, said this is an unprecedented situation for international education.

“While I think there is a tendency to compare it with SARS, the overall sector, international education, is in a very different time and place from 2003, when the SARS epidemic was playing out. The prominence of China has changed over time,” she said.

“What’s new and what’s different has been this growth of a whole range of engagements with Chinese institutions, coupled with China’s own rise as a higher education destination, which has really only happened in the last five or six years,” Bhandari said. “What will this crisis mean for those sorts of engagement? A lot of students from South Asia go to China, and there have been stories of many of them being stranded and not being able to get out. I think it’s going to really rebalance how countries have been rising as destinations and global partners, because it is so much more than just that very narrow lens of ‘can Chinese students come to the U.S., and can American students go to China.’”

Fanta Aw, the vice president of campus life and inclusive excellence at American University and a former president of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, said she is cautiously optimistic that the impact of coronavirus on international education might be limited. But, she said, “time is of the essence, and as time goes by with the admission cycle, with the visa cycle, we have to watch this carefully.”

“I do think this cycle is going to be a challenging cycle from an admissions perspective, from a study abroad perspective. The 2020 cycle is going to be a challenging time,” she said.

“It once again affirms how in international education there are so many interdependencies,” Aw said. “This is what a global world looks like. Events in one area have repercussions in so many different areas as well, whether in this case it’s the coronavirus or whether it’s political situations. This is one of those realities of international education.”

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