Twenty-four-year-old Sehr Taneja, a master’s student at the Harvard Kennedy School, had always seen the United States as “the gold standard” for education. But now she’s more concerned about contracting the novel coronavirus or facing deportation than the rigor of her course load.

Back home in India after leaving Boston in March, she’s deciding whether to defer her second year.

“It just became a question of: Do I trust the government?” she said. “I don’t think they have the best interests of international students in their hearts.”

Such worries over health care, immigration and visa status are drivers behind an expected drop in enrollment among international students at U.S. institutions, and have struck a blow to the standing of the United States as a coveted destination for overseas study, according to initial data gathered by organizations in the global education sector.

Colleges and universities in the United States have long relied on and fostered an elevated reputation among students from around the world. But the coronavirus pandemic has thrown that model into question, while countries including Canada and the United Kingdom continue to gain a competitive edge.

“Of all the main English-speaking destinations, the USA so far seems the hardest hit,” said Thijs van Vugt, the director of analytics for Studyportals, a service that helps universities recruit globally.

Dreams deferred

More than 1 million international students studied or conducted research at U.S. universities last year, or worked through a postgraduate visa program, according to the New York-based Institute of International Education. In March, when the coronavirus shut down much of the world, around 90 percent of those enrolled remained in the country.

In the months since, President Trump imposed travel bans and stoked uncertainty through whiplash student visa policy changes as coronavirus case numbers continued to spike.

It is still too soon to determine the pandemic’s full impact, as schools and education consultancies tend to aggregate enrollment data for the coming year in the fall or at the end of the year. What little evidence is available, however, points to a mounting trend: The number of enrolled international undergraduate and graduate students in United States has been declining, and that trajectory is set to steepen. (By some measures, the number of overseas students in the United States increased last year even as enrollment dropped because of participation in postgraduate work programs.)

“This is a global market for international students, and the United States is losing the competition,” said Brad Farnsworth, the vice president of global engagement for the American Council on Education.

Since March, Studyportals has tracked a 45 percent drop in interest in studying in the United States among its site users year-on-year — the biggest dip since 2017, the company’s earliest available data, van Vugt said. The top five English-speaking countries by number of foreign students — the United States, U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand — all saw a decline in demand in March, but the others largely bounced back.

It is impossible to pinpoint the role of covid-19, van Vugt said, but the pandemic has had a “huge impact.”

IDP Education, an international education company specializing in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Ireland, in April and June surveys of international students found the majority still wanted to continue with their courses abroad. But the United States ranked last among its English-speaking competitors for perceived welfare of international students and showed the highest rate of students hoping to defer.

Loss of tuition

The United States could see a 25 percent drop in international enrollment in 2020, by one estimate, according to Rachel Banks, a senior director at the Association of International Educators (NAFSA). That specter has left U.S. institutions worried about a loss in revenue — alongside a more nebulous decline in their reputations abroad.

A drop in international enrollment in the fall of 2020 could cost schools $3 billion, the association found. (The American Council on Education estimated in April that colleges and universities could lose $23 billion from falling enrollment among all students.) International students at U.S. colleges and universities in the 2018-2019 academic year contributed around $41 billion dollars and nearly a half-million jobs, according to NAFSA. The majority of international students pay for their fees from overseas funding rather than seeking support from host institutions.

The greatest share of international students in the United States are from China and India, both countries that Trump’s administration has targeted with immigration and visa restrictions.

“We continue to put forward policies that make it harder for international students to come here, harder for international scholars to stay and contribute,” said Banks.

Meanwhile, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and Australia have gained an edge. In 2019, Canada recorded its second year of double-digit growth in international students, rising to third place behind the United States and Australia, according to the Canada Immigration Newsletter.

Since March, Canada and the United Kingdom have proposed or implemented policies to make it easier for international students to both come and stay. Canada has exempted students with valid visas from travel restrictions that affect most foreign nationals and has reduced barriers for students to keep their visas and work, according to its immigration services. Some universities in the United Kingdom, already facing changes because of Brexit, are exploring the option of chartering flights for overseas students.

Second thoughts

Ozlem Akkurt, 30, from Turkey, is slated to begin at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business in the fall. But after weeks of uncertainty she is likely to defer — like Taneja and many other students in her position. “With the visa process and covid-19, all together I just realized it’s not an ideal time to come to the U.S. at the moment,” she said.

Akkurt has still been unable to procure a visa because of coronavirus-related U.S. Embassy and consulate closures. In addition to the short-term barriers erected in response to the pandemic, she is watching the November presidential election as a barometer.

“I feel like it is going to take the U.S. longer to get back to normal than the rest of the world, and I just don’t want to be stuck there,” she said. “I don’t have anything against the U.S. It’s just in a really bad situation socially, politically, in every way.”