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Could Coronavirus Lead to a Decrease in International Students in America?

May 16, 2020, 5:47 PM

Priscilla C. of Holland Village in Singapore has a bright future ahead of her. The 17-year-old has been accepted to study economics at Stanford University in California. She hopes to begin her studies this autumn.

But Priscilla, who asked VOA not to use her full name, fears the ongoing coronavirus pandemic will have a major effect on her college experience.

She worries about travel restrictions. She also worries about the United States’ uneven actions taken to fight the disease outbreak. And she wonders whether she will even be able to attend college classes in person in the fall.

“It’s added a lot of stress and uncertainty to the process,” she said. “The most exciting thing about deciding to become an international student was attending college in California, and now there’s a big possibility that I won’t physically be on the campus I was dreaming about.”

She said she trusts that schools will do what they feel is best for their students. But even if colleges do re-open in the fall, Priscilla says she will still probably have health and safety concerns. And, she and her friends fear they may miss out on many traditional college experiences and memories.

Other international students with plans to study in America have similar thoughts and concerns. And, experts worry the effects of the pandemic could cause problems for colleges and universities.

The Institute of International Education, or IIE, does a yearly count of America’s international students using State Department data. During the 2018-2019 school year, the IIE found there were over 1,095,000 international students in the U.S. This represents 5.5 percent of the total college student population.

But the number of new, first-time international students studying at American colleges and universities was 7 percent lower than the year before.

The coronavirus crisis is making it more difficult for international students hoping to come to America, observers say.

Philip Altbach is director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College. He says international students were already dealing with the rising cost of American higher education before the coronavirus pandemic. And, the belief that the U.S. has become less welcoming to foreigners is widespread.

Because of the pandemic, the U.S. has a travel ban on foreign visitors from China and Europe. About 34 percent of international students that come to the U.S. are from China, the IIE reports.

Christopher Rim is the chief executive officer of Command Education, a New York-based college advising company. He says many of the students his company works with are from places like Hong Kong and Shanghai. He says many of them have been considering other choices for international higher education.

Some U.S. schools have already said they will re-open in the fall. But it is still unclear how classes will operate in many cases.

The possibility remains that that many American colleges and universities will reopen online. That means that international students who remain in their home countries may have to take classes in the middle of the night. It also means they will not get the traditional experiences of living in shared housing and taking part in campus events.

Rim said, “They’re not paying a $70,000 or $80,000 tuition to sit in front of a computer in their bedroom or their living room at home.”

Rim noted that a decrease in international students coming to the U.S. would present a serious financial problem for schools and their surrounding communities. International students added over $44 billion to the nation’s economy in 2018, the U.S. Department of Commerce reports.

But James Hundreiser of the National Association Of College And University Business Officers argues that the threat to American higher education is not so great. He says schools no longer have as much financial dependence on international students’ tuition as they once did. And the quality of online education is actually very good.

“I actually wonder if this will open up the doors to…more international students…because of those who can’t afford to necessarily travel overseas,” said Hundreiser. “We know that affordability is an issue for not only American students, but also international students.”

Priscilla C. still plans to study at Stanford, even with her concerns. So do her friends who also have plans to study in America. And even if there is a decrease in the number of international students, Altbach, Rim and Hundreiser all agree that it will not last long.

“Students around the world still see the U.S. as one of the best higher education systems in the world, and the American society, even with the current problems that we face, as an attractive place to be,” Altbach said.

I’m Dorothy Gundy.
And I’m Pete Musto.

Pete Musto reported on this story for VOA Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.

This article appeared in Learning English on May 16, 2020