Supporting the Recovery and Resiliency of International Education in the U.S.: Insights from a WES Social Media Forum

Supporting the Recovery and Resiliency of International Education in the U.S. Lead Image: Masked international student at an airport [1]

As 2021 draws to a close, international education in the United States finds itself in a unique situation. Despite the fog of uncertainty introduced by the emergence of new variants of the coronavirus, more and more, bright spots are beginning to emerge.

On December 6, World Education Services (WES) held a social media forum convening international higher education experts, advocates, and thought leaders to discuss key findings from the 2021 Open Doors Report on International Education Exchange [2], which was released in late November.

While that report, issued by the Institute of International Education (IIE), reviewed international student enrollment over the past year, the goal of this conversation was to look ahead at the state of international education in the U.S. in 2022 and beyond. We asked participants what the report’s startling findings meant for the future of international education, and what the U.S. international education community could do to support its resilience and recovery. With the pandemic unlikely to subside anytime soon, and competition from other international student destination countries growing ever fiercer, this support will be as important as ever.

Using the hashtag #IntlEdNow [3], participants explored the steps institutions and policy makers can take to overcome the daunting, but not insurmountable, challenges that lie ahead. Below we examine five key insights that arose in the discussion.

1. Creating learning experiences, study options, and admissions policies that are flexible and student-centered are a must as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage worldwide.

The pandemic upended the international student experience. Almost overnight, the introduction of social distancing regulations and the rapid transition to the virtual classroom transformed university campuses beyond recognition. As the start of the fall 2020 semester approached, strict international travel restrictions prevented many new and current international students from travelling or returning to the U.S.

As Twitter chat participants noted, the impact of these disruptions on international student enrollment was unprecedented. According to the 2021 Open Doors report, the number of international students in the U.S. dropped from over one million in the 2019/20 academic year to 914,095 in 2020/21, the steepest one-year decline ever recorded [4].

But a year later, the growing availability of vaccines in some countries as well as the relaxation of social distancing regulations and international travel restrictions have sparked a partial return to the pre-pandemic normal on U.S. campuses. The Fall 2021 International Student Enrollment Snapshot [5], a separate report released by IIE in November, found that new international student enrollment rebounded by 68 percent in fall 2021.

While participants welcomed this sign of partial restoration of international enrollments to their pre-pandemic levels, they cautioned against a similar restoration of pre-pandemic practices elsewhere on university campuses. Twitter chat participants noted that even in a post-pandemic world, admissions policies, teaching methods, and campus experiences will need to evolve to accommodate permanent changes in student expectations and demands.

Flexibility during the admissions process is particularly important. Participants urged institutions to adopt a holistic, flexible approach to their admissions policies by adjusting language requirements, extending application deadlines, waiving fees, and introducing test-optional or test-flexible policies.

2. Expanding experiential learning opportunities and paving clearer pathways to permanent residency will be crucial for the recruitment and retention of international students, especially those from India and China.

When asked to consider ways to pique the interest of international students in enrolling in the U.S., many participants suggested that institutions expand experiential learning opportunities. These opportunities, which include hands-on training programs and pre- and post-graduation work placements, allow students to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom to real-world situations. Today, many experts consider experiential learning an invaluable part of the learning process—and an important draw for international students.

Curricular Practical Training (CPT) and Optional Practical Training (OPT), visa programs that allow international students to work in the U.S. as part of their degree programs, are among the most popular avenues for international students to obtain that experiential learning. These programs are particularly important to students from China and India, the two largest sources of international students in the U.S. For students from these countries, the opportunity to obtain pre- and post-graduation work experience is an important consideration when deciding where to study. And Chinese and Indian international students are more likely [11] than students from other countries to participate in programs like CPT and OPT and to apply for H1-B work visas. Given the importance of these opportunities to students from top sending countries, participants recommended that international education professionals push for policy changes at the federal level that would expand or increase the flexibility of programs like CPT or OPT.

An expansion of pathways to permanent residency would also boost interest in the U.S. as a study destination, especially for students from India. Participants noted that Canada, a rapidly growing competitor to the U.S. in attracting international students, has opened comparatively generous pathways to permanent residency for international students in recent years.

3. To truly support the nation’s position as the world’s top international student destination, the federal government must act on its commitments to the sector now.

In its Joint Statement of Principles in Support of International Education [15], released in July 2021, the Biden Administration outlined its commitment to restoring the role of the U.S. as a global leader in international education. The statement came at a perilous time for international education in the U.S. Not only had the pandemic upended international student enrollment the previous year, but four years of the Trump Administration’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy had tarnished the nation’s image as an open and inviting place to study for students from around the world. Twitter chat participants noted that, alongside the impact of the pandemic, this perception of the U.S. as unwelcoming likely contributed to the sharp decline in international student enrollment in the 2020/21 academic year.

Conversely, participants partly attributed the rebound in international student enrollment in fall 2021 to the Biden Administration’s friendlier approach to immigrants and international students. They welcomed the Biden Administration’s Joint Statement as an important step towards reinforcing the U.S.’s place as the premier international student destination, lauding key elements of the strategy, such as its pledge to expedite visa processing, improve immigration procedures and policies, and increase funding for programs that support international students.

However, they also noted that the statement alone would not be enough. The federal government needs to act on it now.

4. Institutions must go beyond traditional recruitment practices. To remain competitive, they’ll need to strengthen and develop transnational programs and partnerships, especially in high-growth countries.

With the pandemic disrupting traditional recruitment channels, institutions need to recalibrate. When asked what practices will be effective in 2022 and beyond, Twitter chat participants highlighted the importance of tailored recruitment initiatives targeting large and up-and-coming sending countries. They also emphasized the need for recruiters to utilize the latest educational technologies to increase awareness among prospective international students even before they decide where to apply.

The discussion raised a number of specific insights and recommendations. Participants suggested that universities work with full-time recruitment representatives focused on specific high-growth countries, such as India. These representatives could help institutions cultivate important relationships in target countries, such as partnerships with local higher education institutions, organizations working with high school students, and other education-focused organizations and companies. Institutions should also adopt the latest digital platforms and technologies to facilitate connections with prospective partners and students both in real-time and on-demand.

5. As part of their recruitment efforts, institutions must utilize alumni networks and other tools that provide prospective international applicants with direct insights into the student experience.

Fortunately, even before institutions adopt the latest educational technologies or cultivate new international partnerships, they’ll already have an effective tool for targeted recruitment: their international student bodies, both past and present. Twitter chat participants highlighted the importance of alumni networks in attracting prospective international students, who, more and more, are looking to hear directly from an institution’s former students. Alumni networks composed of and catering to students from a single country may be particularly beneficial, helping potential international applicants feel welcomed and a part of the campus during the recruitment process.

Twitter chat participants also recommended that administrators closely monitor and cultivate social media and other forms of word-of-mouth communication to showcase the best of the campus experience. This is important not simply for prospective international students, but also for the parents and counselors hoping to better understand an institution on behalf of their students and children.

With the Omicron variant complicating any return to normalcy for the foreseeable future, colleges and universities in the U.S. need to make sure they understand and adapt to the needs and concerns of their current and future international students. If they do, they can help make the near future of international education in the U.S. brighter than its recent past.