The number of foreign students enrolling in US colleges and universities for the first time last year rose to 80% of pre-pandemic levels, according to a State Department-sponsored report.
The number of newly enrolled international students rose to 261,961 in 2021-22, the department’s Office of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the nonprofit Institute of International Education reported Monday.
This follows a drop of 100,000 new enrollments in the 2020-21 academic year after pandemic travel restrictions led to a drop in applications in 2019-20.
“We are excited to see the number of international students increasing and that the United States maintains its global leadership as the preferred destination for international students,” Lee Satterfield, assistant secretary of state for education and culture, said in a statement.
A total of 948,519 students from 200 countries studied in the US last year, a 4% increase from 2020-21. The number is up 9% so far this fall.
Most of the recovery is among graduate students, with undergraduate enrollment continuing to lag behind pre-pandemic levels.
The report found that international undergraduate enrollments fell 4% last year and graduate enrollments rose 17%. As a result, the number of international doctoral students studying in the USA exceeded the number of undergraduate students for the first time.
Ronald J. Rychlak, a University of Mississippi law professor and athletics faculty representative, cites COVID-19 travel restrictions that kept international athletes away from undergraduate recruiters.
“That can affect, for example, a student’s ability to drive home quickly, or for a coach to go on a recruitment trip to see a promising tennis player,” Mr Rychlak said.
“I fully understand that under such circumstances, students choose to stay at home rather than study abroad,” he added. “I expect that number to return to pre-COVID levels once such restrictions are no longer an issue.”
According to the report, the number of students arriving in the US from China last year – where tighter pandemic restrictions prompted many students to delay applications – fell 9% to 290,086.
During the same period, the number of Indian students coming to the US increased by 19% to 199,182. That positions India to overtake China as the leading exporter of college students to American schools this year.
“The number of undergraduate students from China is likely to continue to decline due to changes in Chinese government policies and improvements in the quality of their universities,” said Alan Ruby, director of global engagement at the University of Pennsylvania. “If India continues to open up its education sector to international competition and closer international engagement, we could see a stronger flow of students between two key democracies.”
Many colleges and universities rely financially on international students, who tend to pay full tuition—unlike domestic students who take out federal loans.
According to the Department of Commerce, international students contributed $32 billion to the US economy last year. That’s about $6 billion below the pre-pandemic high-water mark.
Economist Weifeng Zhong, a senior research fellow at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, says the US must continue to attract Chinese students to maintain this level.
“America has long been the envy of the world’s academic community and it is vital for us that it stays that way,” said Mr. Zhong, who immigrated from mainland China. “At a time of intense competition between the United States and China in business and technology, the last thing we need is a brain drain.”
International students accounted for 4.7% of the total US college student population in 2021-22, according to Monday’s report. About 90% of internationals returned to face-to-face classes, with math and computer science with engineering degrees being the most common majors.
Many small colleges are desperate for international students to help keep their doors open after two years of COVID-related enrollment declines, according to the conservative National Association of Scholars.
Peter Wood, the group’s president, says that’s why Chinese nationals are rapidly replacing Americans in lucrative STEM programs.
“The heads of these universities look the other way when many of these students turn out to be Chinese Communist Party agents bent on acquiring US technical expertise, fostering close ties with our top researchers, and engaging in outright intellectual property theft . said Mr. Wood, a former associate provost at Boston University.