Nearly 40,000 international students have deferred enrollment, the institute reported, as the pandemic continues to wreak worldwide havoc on plans for travel and education.
The numbers pose a huge challenge for schools that rely heavily on international students to meet revenue targets and bring diverse viewpoints to campus.
“We’ve never had a decrease like that,” said Allan E. Goodman, the president and chief executive of the nonprofit institute based in New York. But Goodman predicted that the phenomenon will be temporary.
“What we do know is when pandemics end, there’s tremendous pent-up demand,” he said. When it is safe to resume travel, Goodman said, schools will be “dealing with surges of students that have deferred.”
The coronavirus crisis led to widespread shutdowns of U.S. campuses in March as authorities sought to control the spread of the pathogen. The disease caused by the virus, covid-19, has killed at least 245,000 people in the United States. Schools this fall have taken a variety of approaches, delivering courses online, in person and in hybrid fashion.
Colleges are feeling an overall enrollment squeeze. Counting domestic and foreign students, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported in September that head counts were down 1.8 percent compared with the previous year. That was fueled by a decline in undergraduates among all racial and ethnic groups.
Many international students who already were in the country when the pandemic began have stayed on or near campuses. But those who needed to travel to the United States, especially first-time students, have encountered significant hurdles. Some chose to take classes remotely from their home countries if they did not defer enrollment.
The survey, a snapshot of fall trends, was released alongside a more comprehensive annual report the institute produced with the State Department.
That report, called Open Doors, showed the number of international students in the United States fell 1.8 percent in the 2019-2020 school year. But the total — 1.075 million international students — remained above 1 million for the fifth straight year. Those figures include enrolled students and those who are in temporary employment related to their fields of study.
“International student mobility is as important today as ever, and we believe the United States is the best destination for students to study and earn their degrees,” Marie Royce, the assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs, said in a statement.
The leading source of international students remains China. More than 372,000 Chinese students were in the United States in the last school year, the report found. That was up slightly — by less than 1 percent — in comparison with the previous year’s total. India ranked second, with 193,000 students in the United States, down 4.4 percent.
Critics of the Trump administration have argued that the president’s rhetoric and policies toward foreign visitors and immigration have had a chilling effect on international student enrollment. Administration officials dispute that view, saying the United States continues to welcome international students.
In 2017-2018 — the first full school year after President Trump took office — the number of new international students coming to the United States fell 6.6 percent. But the latest Open Doors report found that measure appeared to be stabilizing in 2019-2020, with new international enrollment down 0.6 percent.