How Has COVID-19 Impacted the International Student Experience

Higher education is a critical contributor to the US economy and culture, attracting billions of international talents every year. The market size of higher education in the US is roughly $580 billion and 2.6% of US GDP. International students are 4% of the total student population, yet they bring in $41 billion to the economy, accounting for 7% of the market while creating and supporting nearly 460k jobs in 2019. Federal and state funding have been substantial— 3.98 trillion and 78 million respectively in 2017– in supporting the operation of public college and universities through e.g., research funding and financial aid. However, international students often bring in their own funds. Most international students (62%) came to the country with major funds from sources outside of the nation, including those from personal earning, family, home government, and universities.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has unavoidably created a shock within higher education, especially for international students. Most institutions closed their campuses and moved their courses online while navigating varying safety and health standards, as well as taking on increased technical and organizational challenges. While executive orders, detrimental regulatory actions and xenophobic rhetoric from the US government prevailed, in addition, international students have had to deal with issues such as travel restrictions, reduced visa services, and delay or suspension of test scores required for application, to hate speech that is emotionally devastating. Consequently, despite that most schools have been working hard to update protocols and make digital transitions, there was an overall drop in international student economic value in two decades evaluated by NAFTA. As international students search for new opportunities, more than 42k jobs and $1.8 billion are lost in the economy. One may recall that, meanwhile, the State has also been struggling to provide enough funding for public colleges and universities since the Great Recession in 2008.

So how are higher education institutions coping with the shock of the pandemic and the shadow of the Great Recession? Nationally, the tuition has been raised by $2,484 annually between 2008 and 2017 per students to mitigate the lack of government funding. Higher education institutions, surveyed by IEE during the pandemic, have been supportive to students by offering:

  1. Options for independent or remote study;
  2. Options to take absence and resume study in the next quarter/semester;
  3. Options to take classes online;
  4. Options to study abroad;
  5. Friendly protocols for recruitment, e.g., extended application period, waived GRE, virtual events tailored to local recruitment, etc.

One prominent example is Wellesley College which offers remote classes in both partner school campuses, and foreign locations for study abroad. Working with Fudan University in Shanghai, China, Wellesley offer admitted Chinese students remote classes as well as courses prepared by Fudan. Wellesley also offers weeks-long study/research abroad programs, where students can learn from the best in local universities but also take classes with Wellesley through virtual portal.

US higher education institutions are positive and strategic about reopening and committed to internationalization. An overwhelming majority of institutions have decided to bring students back to campus for Fall 2021, however, each institution has its own decision to make on how to safely do so. Some institutions have mandated vaccination (e.g., Cornell University in New York, St-Edward’s University in Texas), while others strongly recommend vaccination (e.g., Pennsylvania State University, Harvard University in Massachusetts). Students who have already moved back into student housing are asked to be frequently tested, e.g., University of Illinois, Champaign offers free tests at the campus twice a week. A recent article published by Nature has also highlighted a potential in internationalization: that international research collaboration contributes significantly to new discoveries, that a good partnership starts often in face-to-face, and side-by-side interaction.

So how can higher education institutions stay competitive in the post-COVID world? ESI and ANBOUND specialize in thought leadership for universities and higher education institutions. Though their primary mission is education, research, and care, universities and hospitals must express the economic impact they represent as major employers, procurers of goods and services, initiators of capital projects, and magnets for students/patients/visitors. ESI helps its institutional clients articulate those impacts and reinforce that these economic impacts occur because of a focus on education, research, and care, which in addition to supporting jobs and tax revenues today also produce long-term regional economic competitiveness.

Joyce Liu, Analyst | [email protected]

Joyce Liu is an analyst at Econsult Solutions, Inc. (ESI). Joyce was a research assistant with ESI before joining the firm full-time. She graduated from University of California, Los Angeles with a B.S. in Biology in 2018 and completed her M.S. in City Planning from the University of Pennsylvania in 2020. Joyce provides expertise in geospatial analysis and literature research. She also has programming and design experience in ArcGIS, SQL, HTML, R Studio, JavaScript, and Adobe for statistical analysis and multimedia design.

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