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International Enrollment Drop to Hit Higher Ed's Credit for Years

April 5, 2021
 
 

The U.S. higher education sector will feel a revenue hit for several years from a low number of international students enrolling in colleges and universities this fall, according to a report issued last week by Moody’s Investors Service. The development has a negative impact on the sector’s credit profile, according to the bond ratings agency.

International student enrollments at four-year U.S. colleges and universities fell by 13.6 percent in the fall. A rebound in the upcoming fall may be likely, especially given reports of rising applications from international students, but small classes one year flow on to future years. Several factors could also slow recovery -- coronavirus travel restrictions, reputational effects of hard-line federal immigration policies under former president Trump and increased competition overseas among them.

The U.S. has a relatively low percentage of international students compared to some other countries at 5.5 percent, versus 28 percent in Australia, 15 percent in Canada and 20 percent in the United Kingdom. But the U.S. market for international students is highly concentrated. Almost 20 percent of all students from overseas who study in the U.S. attend one of just 20 universities.

Those universities tend to have strong brands that may be able to withstand downward demand pressures -- they include Northeastern, New York and Columbia Universities. But other institutions rely heavily on international students to fill out relatively smaller student bodies, even if they don’t count among the top international enrollment destinations by sheer number of students.

At some institutions, international students make up between 25 percent and 45 percent of the student body. Music conservatories and schools of art and design tend to be particularly heavily reliant on international enrollment.

International student declines were sharpest at the graduate level, where one in five students is international. International students are also highly concentrated in business, computer science, English language and engineering.

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