Some international students chose to return to their home countries because of the pandemic, while others stayed near campus.

Some international students chose to return to their home countries because of the pandemic, while others stayed near campus.

International students enrich the United States culturally and economically – in 2019 international students contributed $44 billion to the U.S. economy.

But in the 2019/2020 school year, the number of international students dropped slightly for the first time in more than 10 years.

And now, amid the pandemic, preliminary data shows that U.S. higher education institutions saw a 16% decrease in international students this fall.

This is all according to this year’s Open Doors report from the Institute of International Education, which paints a detailed picture of international students in the U.S. We’ll discuss this report and the challenges international students have endured and will continue to face this upcoming semester. And, might the promise of a new presidential administration and a COVID-19 vaccine once again make the United States an appealing location for international students?

Produced by Inés Rénique


  • Senem Bakar Director of International Student and Scholar Services at American University
  • Mirka Martel Head of Research, Evaluation and learning; Institute of International Education
  • Santiago Rodriguez Student, American University


  • 12:00:19

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast Kojo For Kids welcomes Veterinarian Gary Weitzman. But first, for the fourth year in a row the number of new enrollments for international students has dropped in the U.S. From new Visa restrictions to a pandemic, circumstances are leaving international students in the lurch. Will a new administration mean a more welcome environment for international students? Joining us now to discuss what's on the line is Mirka Martel, the Head of Research, Evaluation and learning at the Institute of International Education, IIE. Mirka, thank you very much for joining us.

  • 12:00:58

    MIRKA MARTELThank you.

  • 12:01:01

    NNAMDIMirka, every year you and your colleagues release the open doors reports looking at data on the more than 1 million international students enrolled in U.S. higher ed institutions. Briefly tell us how you collect these data points and how are they used?

  • 12:01:17

    MARTELSure. So the open doors project, which has been done by the Institute of International Education with support from the U.S. Department of State has been going on for actually 71 years this year. So it is a historical data set of international student mobility flows into the U.S. And so what we do is every year we send out a survey, a census to close to 2,900 institutions, U.S. higher education institutions across the country that report hosting international students. And we collect this data so that we can understand better how many international students are in the United States both those enrolled and those on optional practical training or OPT.

  • 12:02:02

    NNAMDIMirka, what did the report find for the 2019-2020 school year?

  • 12:02:08

    MARTELSo for the 2019-2020 academic year we found that for the fifth year in a row there were over 1 million international students in the United States. We did find that there was a slight overall decline of international students in the U.S. of about 1.8 percent. And this included -- or this is due to a number of factors mainly because of one of the findings you mentioned earlier on, which is that we have seen lower enrollments of new international students coming to the county. So international students coming to the U.S. to study at a U.S. higher ed institution for the first time.

  • 12:02:50

    NNAMDIIt's important to note that this data is pre-pandemic and it found international student enrollment decreased as did the total number of international students in the U.S. Why is there a decrease in both of these categories?

  • 12:03:06

    MARTELYeah. I think it's a great questions. I think that there is several trends that have been happening for a few years now that can help explain how the slowing has happened. So, again, we have seen some declines in new international student enrollments. I think the other thing we've seen is a slowing of OPTs. So OPT, or optional practical training, is a wonderful opportunity that international students have after they finish their degree in the U.S. to get some work experience. And in 2016, there was an OPT extension that was done for STEM students to allow them to stay in the country for up to three years.

  • 12:03:47

    MARTELAnd as a result of that we really saw exponential growth in OPT for a few years. And that number has now stabilized. So we have seen it stabilize in much higher numbers. But that growth that we had seen in OPT has now leveled off. So we're just seeing a slower growth there. And as a result, the combination of these factors is causing the total number of international students to really slow and level off.

  • 12:04:16

    NNAMDIIf you have already called, stay on the line. We will get to your calls. But we still have lines open so you can call 800-433-8850. What role do you think international students play on college campuses? 800-433-8850, send us a tweet @kojoshow or email to Joining us now is Senem Bakar, Director of American University's International Student and Scholar Services office. Senem, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:04:47

    SENEM BAKARThank you for taking me.

  • 12:04:49

    NNAMDIYour office at American University ensures international students are taken care of during their time at AU from help with immigration services to cultural activities. This year amidst the pandemic, how were your students making the decision to stay in D.C. or to leave and how many decided to stay?

  • 12:05:09

    BAKARThis year, decision making process was the most cumbersome and changing because there were a lot of external factors. One of which is several travel bans as you know. The country has closed borders due to pandemic. The other is that family want their children back in some cases. So as soon as the university, my university announced fully online education in mid-spring, some of our undergraduate students returned home. But the majority stayed here, because of those reasons. Then over the summer more undergraduate students were able to leave, because they would continue following the education fully online. DHS guidance allowed that, but then graduate level students stayed in the United States.

  • 12:06:06

    BAKARGraduate level students mostly live, you know, in the area. We do not offer on-campus housing. And I believe that this is pretty much the norm at many U.S. institutions. So they had lease to keep. Some have families here. And also they are here for a shorter time compared to undergraduate students. So majority of graduate students stayed in the United States while the undergraduate students left.

  • 12:06:37

    NNAMDILet's hear from Yosen in Washington D.C. Yosen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:06:45

    YOSENYeah. I'm right here.

  • 12:06:48

    NNAMDIGo right ahead.

  • 12:06:49

    YOSENSo at least for me I think, you know, I graduated from AU in 2016. And I graduated from Georgetown this last spring. And obviously I feel like the biggest impact or difference was COVID when it came to OPT. Just because, you know, as American citizens face lost jobs, offers were getting canceled, job offers were getting pushed back a couple of months. And as a person who has been approved for OPT, you only have 90 days of unemployment. So if that extends too long you end up losing your job offer. You end up having to leave the country or you just end up not finding another job in time. And of course, even with all the immigration policies that happened over the last couple of years that has already been discouraging enough for international students to either continue in the U.S. or stay in the U.S.

  • 12:07:40

    NNAMDISenem Bakar, one, how familiar is that story and two, can you explain what OPT is?

  • 12:07:46

    BAKAROPT is an optional practical training that's allowed for advanced students once they complete one academic year in their program as an advanced student. So students apply directly to U.S. government for the work permit. Most students save this eligibility for post-completion. It's a 12 month given to students after completing their program if they choose or after completing one academic year as a part-time in that case. So as we all know that most students come to the United States for our exceptionally good education system, but also for the practical experience of it, so more and more students are interested in OPT. And then in the last few years there have been a lot of changes in how OPT could be implemented.

  • 12:08:37

    BAKARLike the student, who just joined us say that, you know, a 90 day unemployment period brought a very big restriction to the OPT implementation in terms of students finding jobs. Employers did not want to employ students if that was really, you know, restricted now. So STEM is a wonderful extension. But not every student is STEM-eligible. So they don't have that long period of employability if they are in social sciences for example.

  • 12:09:12

    NNAMDIYosen, thank you very much for you call. You too can call us at 800-433-8850 or send us a tweet @kojoshow. Senem Bakar, this summer was made all the more difficult for the international students of community when the Trump administration attempted to implement a rule requiring international students to leave the country if their school held classes entirely online because of the pandemic. Although this was rescinded, it pointed to greater issues in immigration policies. How do you serve as a liaison between the government and your students?

  • 12:09:48

    BAKARThat's a wonderful question. Well, pandemic not only challenged everyone with health and safety risks, but also introduced a high degree of unpredictability in our field. Especially this summer was a perfect example for that. So people like me, my colleagues at other universities, we have tried very, very hard to try to maintain some kind of predictability, which was very difficult.

  • 12:10:14

    BAKARWe have a wonderful organization, professional organization NAFSA, Association for International Educators. They joined us. They lit the field in terms of advocating for the value of the students, you know, staying here in a more predictable environment. It was difficult? Were we successful? To some extent yes, but not to the level of our own satisfaction. If I give you one example, I mean in a month period between July and August, the advice from our offices would change maybe three, four times.

  • 12:10:54


  • 12:10:55

    BAKARYet our offices, like you said earlier are here to provide support to our students. So we had to, you know, create and maintain a trusting relationship. And if I am not able to, you know, provide and advice that would not change in the next month. At least, that's a big, big challenge that we all had to face. So it was hard like I said. The field lost predictability and the students were impacted. You know, the entire higher education community was impacted.

  • 12:11:36

    NNAMDIMirka Martel, as were saying, many institutions were fully online for the fall. Did that ability to study in the U.S. remotely in any way boost international student enrollment? We only have about a minute left in this segment, but go ahead, please.

  • 12:11:52

    MARTELYeah. I think it's certainly helped to have this opportunity. We did a study of about 700 institutions. So a snapshot in the fall and we did find that we had to expand that definition. So were able to capture that one in five international students this fall was actually enrolled online from abroad. So it's a critical population that we need to consider in our kind of measurement moving forward and I think it will be very important to capture this population of international students.

  • 12:12:26

    NNAMDII'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:12:43

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about what's on line for international students amid the pandemic. We're talking with Senem Bakar Director of American University's International Student and Scholar Services office. Mirka Martel is the Head of Research, Evaluation and learning at the Institute of International Education. And we're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Has the pandemic changed your views on higher education? If you've called, stay on the line. We will get to your calls if you'd like to. Joining us now is Santiago Rodriguez, a Senior at American University. Santiago, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:13:24

    SANTIAGO RODRIGUEZThank you. Thank you for having me.

  • 12:13:26

    NNAMDIYou're an international student at AU. How did you make the decision to return to your home country Colombia? How did you navigate the uncertainty surrounding classes and visa policies?

  • 12:13:40

    RODRIGUEZSo when the pandemic hit I was currently doing my abroad program at London in the United Kingdom. So when everything started to get more complicated, flights started to get closed and whatnot, it was a hard decision to take. I took it along with my family. We evaluated the different options that I had. I could either attempt to finish my semester in London and then return to the U.S. to try to manage for next semester to stay in D.C. or go all the way back to Colombia and take online classes. At the moment we were not even sure how classes were going to work, right.

  • 12:14:14

    RODRIGUEZSo it ended up just being a money rational. Staying in the U.S. or staying in the United Kingdom would have been much more expensive than returning home. And in that way, well, obviously taking into account the safety of being sick outside your home country where you don't really know how the health system operates and especially in the middle of a global pandemic, we chose alongside my family just that the best option was to go back home.

  • 12:14:42

    NNAMDIAs a Senior graduating in just a few weeks, you're looking into work opportunities in the U.S. What has this search been like? What factors do you have to consider when you're trying to find a position in the U.S. when you're not a citizen. Does an employer have to sponsor you for a visa?

  • 12:14:59

    RODRIGUEZYes. So if finding a job before a global pandemic was hard, it's just been almost impossible to get opportunities right now. So if I don't apply for an OPT, which I'm currently doing -- if you don't get an OPT, you would be required to get a sponsorship from an employer. But being just recently graduating from my undergrad, it's very unlikely that an employer would choose to sponsor a visa, because it is really time and resource consuming in that sense. So it's definitely been hard looking at all the available options.

  • 12:15:33

    RODRIGUEZAnd that being said, I have to acknowledge the work that the International Student and Scholar Services office has done at AU, because they have been very present. They have managed to give us students with all of the available information even when regulations have changed as was discussed earlier. But, yeah, the job market now for everyone even U.S. citizens it's hard. And being non-U.S. citizen, especially with the whole discourse embraced by the Trump administration regarding how international students and in general just non-citizens fit into America's society, it's just been harder. So, yeah, it's been definitely a challenge.

  • 12:16:14

    NNAMDISenem Bakar, like many international students, Santiago is forced by circumstances to be back in his home country. Are we at risk of losing bright, young people like him? Do you have hopes more international students will return come January?

  • 12:16:30

    BAKARI do have hopes, which are supported by what we are hearing from students. Students are longing for face to face education, and they would like to come back as soon as they could. So there are also some research, some surveys supporting that. And at American University I'm hearing from students also for spring because in the fall earlier we heard from Mirka that a lot of students decided to defer their education. There was at least over 40,000 students, who decided not to enroll in non-face to face education. We do expect them to come back.

  • 12:17:14

    BAKARI don't think American education system loses its value. It is still there. It is a very highly, you know, valued commodity. But what we need to see is a little bit more stable and a secure environment and predictability to bring those students back.

  • 12:17:36

    NNAMDIHere is Wafer in Philadelphia. Wafer, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:17:41

    WAFERYeah. Hi. Thank you for having me. So my name is Wafer and I'm an international student. I'm from Taiwan. As most people might know that the pandemic in Taiwan is relatively better than in the United States. So it is very hard and a lot of decision making since the pandemic, because if we go back to Taiwan and doing everything online, we will save a lot of money. We do not need to pay rent and we do not have to live by ourselves in the United States taking risk going to the grocery store or buying food by ourselves.

  • 12:18:19

    WAFERSo a lot of students make a decision going back to Taiwan or China instead of staying here. But actually this is my last semester. If I want to use the OPT to try to find a job here, I have to stay here otherwise will not be able to apply for the OPT. So I'm kind of like in a weird spot. I left United States in May and I went back to Taiwan. I was in Taiwan for the whole summer. I got an internship and then I was taking online summer course. I kind of have a regular life in Taiwan because we do not have that much cases in Taiwan. So we can go outside, going to a bar, going to a grocery store or hang out with friends.

  • 12:19:06

    WAFERAnd then once I'm done for the summer internship, I came back to the United States in this fall, because I feel like taking the class online was a 12 hour time difference will be so terrible for me especially I'm a graduate student. So I come back here in fall. And right now I'm still here. I'm going to finish my school and I will try to apply for OPT. Hopefully the things will work out.

  • 12:19:34

    NNAMDIThank you for your call. Mirka, Wafer is one of just the nearly 13,000 international students here. She's at American University. In neighboring Maryland and Virginia there are around 20,000 international students in each state. What is their economic contribution? What's the economic contribution of international students to the U.S.?

  • 12:19:57

    MARTELYeah, so the economic contribution is substantial as Senem has mentioned. In 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce international students contributed $44 billion to the U.S. economy. And if you look at a trajectory of just 20 years ago, it was only $9 billion. So that contribution has grown almost five fold. So it is incredibly substantial and I think U.S. higher education institutions are well aware of that and are considering how much international students are contributing on their campuses. I will say that, of course, there are contributions that go well beyond the U.S. dollars and also are the contributions that international students are making to making U.S. campuses a diverse place. A place where, you know, students from all around the world can get an education.

  • 12:20:56

    NNAMDISantiago Rodriguez, do you think the promise of a new presidential administration might attract international students to the U.S. again or improve the situation of international students already in the U.S.?

  • 12:21:09

    RODRIGUEZI think that the change in administration will definitely at least address the problem of uncertainty in legal terms. The Biden administration would probably try to just stabilize all of these attempted legal changes to OPTs, temporary visas to international students, etcetera. So that definitely will take some weight out of people's minds. That being said I do agree that like the attractiveness of the U.S. school system will remain and that won't change. But still given the social tensions that remain in the U.S. and that have been revealed throughout the Trump administration, these tensions will remain.

  • 12:21:46

    RODRIGUEZAnd that might present a drawback or at least may create an afterthought for students who might want to study in the U.S. So I do think that certainly it becomes more attractive now that Donald Trump is gone. But it certainly -- the change in administration will not erase all of what has happened in the last four years definitely.

  • 12:22:07

    NNAMDIAfraid that's all the time we have. Santiago Rodriguez is a Senior at American University. Santiago, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:22:14

    RODRIGUEZThank you very much for having me.

  • 12:22:16

    NNAMDIMirka Martel is the Head of Research, Evaluation and learning at the Institute of International Education. Mirka, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:22:23

    MARTELThank you so much.

  • 12:22:25

    NNAMDIAnd Senem Bakar Director of American University's International Student and Scholar Services office. Senem, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:22:33

    BAKARThank you for having me.

  • 12:22:35

    NNAMDIUp next, Kojo For Kids welcomes Veterinarian Gary Weitzman. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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