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International students at Wichita State University

Courtesy of Wichita State University

As colleges try to plan their fall operations and shape their classes, they face a big question that will largely be answered by forces outside their control: If they do resume in-person classes, will international students be able to join them?

The global pandemic is causing widespread uncertainty: routine visa processing is suspended at U.S. embassies and consulates worldwide. International travel restrictions are in place in many countries. Commercial flight options are limited at best. College administrators say they have little choice but to plan for sizable declines in international students and the tuition revenue they bring.

The University of Arizona, for example, is projecting losses of 80 percent for new international students and 30 percent for continuing international students, an outcome that translates into a projected $33.1 million revenue loss.

Brent White, Arizona’s vice provost for global affairs, said the university is doing worst-case scenario planning -- but that “the worst-case scenario is not an unlikely scenario.”

“The worst-case scenario is students can’t travel, they can’t get visas, they’re reluctant to come because they want to stay close to home. I think those factors are going to join together to mean that everyone is going to see significant declines in the number of international students,” he said.

A recent survey by the Institute of International Education found that 88 percent of colleges expect international enrollment to decrease in the coming year, and 70 percent anticipate that some international students will not be able to come to their campuses for in-person classes this fall.

The chances current international students can return to their campuses look much better: colleges reported that 92 percent of their current international students remain in the U.S.

On par with that figure, Arizona surveyed about half its 4,000 international students and determined that 89 percent of those who responded remain in the U.S., White said.

"We’re hoping that 30 percent is an overestimation in terms of what we will see in terms of declines for existing students," he said.

NAFSA: Association of International Educators last week issued a report estimating losses of at least $3 billion due to anticipated declines in international student enrollments at U.S. colleges this fall. The association is lobbying Congress for economic stimulus funds for international education as well as for policy changes such as waiving the in-person visa interview requirement “to the fullest extent allowable by law” and making priority appointments available for student and scholar visa applicants in order to ease their ability to come to the U.S.

Adding to the uncertainty, the Trump administration is reportedly expected to temporarily restrict a popular program that allows international students to stay in the U.S. and work for up to three years after graduating while staying on their student visas. Supporters of the optional practical training program argue that restrictions would drive down international enrollments, which have already been declining.

Colleges vary greatly in terms of their reliance on tuition revenue from international students. Over all, international students account for 5.5 percent of all students enrolled at American colleges and universities, “but within that there’s a huge range” of the extent to which colleges depend on these students, said Debra Roane, vice president and senior credit officer at the credit ratings agency Moody’s.

Roane said that among the U.S. universities that Moody’s rates, 36 percent rely on international students for more than 10 percent of their total revenue.

“That shows you it’s not a huge component, but having said that, of course there are some universities that are very reliant on that revenue and they are certainly looking at a very uncertain situation going forward,” she said. “Will new students be able to travel, will schools be open, will visas be provided? If the answer to that is no, to what extent will these students want to pursue online degrees or not?”

Fifty-two percent of institutions that responded to the ​Institute of International Education survey said they plan to offer international students the option to enroll online this fall.

Vince Altum, the executive director of the Office of International Education at Wichita State University, in Kansas, said the university surveyed its international students who were newly admitted to the summer session and found that few wanted to start their programs online.

“They are not wanting to take online classes; that’s not generally why they wanted to get a U.S. education,” Altum said. “Some of them realize it would just be a temporary thing, but given the choice between taking online classes for the summer or postponing their admission to fall for when they would physically be able to come, potentially, nearly all students chose to get a new I-20 to come in August rather than taking online classes for the summer.” (The I-20 is the document colleges issue to admitted international students as part of the visa application process.)

“I’m not optimistic that for the fall the result is going to be that much different,” Altum said.

John Wilkerson, assistant vice president for international services and executive director of international admissions at Indiana University, said IU will be giving international students who are unable to come to the U.S. the option to defer for a semester or year and keep their merit scholarships, or to start online. He said IU is not collecting enrollment deposits from international students and is only asking for a statement of intent to enroll.

“We’re trying to introduce some assurances in the selection process that allow the student to make an objective decision,” Wilkerson said. “All things being normal, would you like to come to Indiana? If the answer is yes, we’ll just keep going through this process knowing that we have contingencies with you for online start or for deferment with scholarship. We’re just trying to recognize that these are 17-year-olds for whom the world has been turned upside down, and we’re doing everything we can not to penalize their university selection process because of it.”

Don Hunt, the associate vice chancellor of enrollment management at the University of California, Davis, said the university is modeling various scenarios for instruction, including in-person, remote and hybrid options.

"At the moment, we are not projecting declines as we've been able to develop models that will support students where they are regardless of the travel situation," Hunt said. "In the absence of that, I'm sure we would be seeing potential declines."

Administrators say there is still strong interest among admitted students in coming to the U.S. -- if they can. White, at the University of Arizona, said enrollment deposits from international students are down by 18.9 percent compared to last year -- far less than the 80 percent decline in new international students the university is planning for as a worst-case scenario. Arizona recently announced an expansion of its "microcampus" network, a network of overseas partner institutions through which students who want or need to stay closer to home can enroll in Arizona programs.

Bryan Gross, vice president for enrollment and marketing at Western New England University, a private institution in Massachusetts, similarly said enrollment deposits are down, but about 45 new international students have still submitted them. Gross said Western New England would typically have 55 to 65 incoming international students. (Western New England, like many other universities, has extended its deposit deadline until June 1.)

Gross said the university has been connecting with admitted students through online yield events.

“We have a very engaged pool of international students,” he said “Just like our domestic students, they are articulating that they want to come for the fall, but of course the question is if they will be able to.”

Some newly admitted international students are already in the U.S.

Todd Rinehart, vice chancellor for enrollment at the University of Denver, said about a quarter of its admitted international students attended U.S. high schools. Some of those students returned to their home countries after the pandemic started, but others stayed in the U.S.

Rinehart, who is also president-elect of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said many colleges, including his own, were already anticipating a challenging year for recruiting international students before the pandemic hit and admitted more domestic students as a hedge.

Rinehart said increased competition for students from other countries, concerns about tuition costs and perceptions of the U.S. political climate as being unwelcoming to foreigners were already making it harder to recruit international students. In addition, he noted that many colleges anticipated recruitment challenges in China, where the virus was first identified, as coronavirus infections rates grew in January and February, when many colleges were still making admission decisions.

“I think a number of colleges did admit more domestic students in their regular decision rounds, just anticipating it was going to be challenging to have Chinese students entering the country,” he said.

The challenges have only grown since then. As they look to fall, enrollment and international education professionals said they are hoping for the best and planning for the worst.

“It’s going to be predicated on two things -- first what we do here on campus, face-to-face versus remote and online, but also the more important part is what’s happening outside of the U.S. with consulates reopening and students being able to get access to visa appointments and being able to make it to the U.S. once things open up,” said Ahmad M. Ezzeddine, associate vice president for educational outreach and international programs and senior associate to the president for special initiatives at Wayne State University.

“From everything that we’re seeing, the likelihood of having new international students physically here in August and September, I don’t see how that is possible.”

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