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Coronavirus, Trump chill international enrollment at US colleges

By Sophie Quinton, on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON - Chittawan Boonsitanon started junior year at Michigan State University last week from his home in Bangkok, 8,500 miles and half a world away. Boonsitanon said many international students decided months ago to take classes online, before Michigan State administrators in mid-August urged all undergraduates to stay home.

Between the coronavirus pandemic and racial justice protests rocking America, returning to East Lansing didn't seem like a good idea. "It's the health and safety of the United States that really concerns us," Boonsitanon said.

Administrators at Michigan State and other public colleges and universities nationwide say they expect fewer new international students to enroll this fall because of visa delays and safety fears.

Enrolling fewer international students who pay a premium - Michigan State charges international students over $41,000 a year in tuition, almost triple what local students pay - will be another financial blow. Colleges already face falling revenue from closed dorms, canceled football games and state budget cuts along with rising costs from increased cleaning and COVID-19 testing.

That lost revenue could diminish the amenities available to all students. Fewer international students also will mean fewer chances for American students to be exposed to someone from a different culture. Such interactions are "priceless," said Robbyn Wacker, president of St. Cloud State University in St. Cloud, Minnesota.

Organizations that support international education are projecting big drops in international enrollment and related tuition revenue this fall.


"When pressed, we've estimated a 25 or 30% (enrollment) decline, but I hesitate to put a number on it," said Brad Farnsworth, vice president of global engagement at the American Council on Education, a Washington, D.C.-based higher education membership organization.

Public and private universities in the United States could collectively experience a $3 billion revenue decline as international students stay away this fall, according to an April survey from NAFSA: Association of International Educators, a D.C.-based nonprofit.

College leaders, however, give a range of estimates. The University of Washington, for instance, typically admits a freshman class of 7,000 students, with 1,000 from overseas. "We're still very much on track to having the entering class I described," said Jeffrey Riedinger, vice provost for global affairs.

Trump administration officials, meanwhile, have long said some international students should be kept out of the country. In May, President Donald Trump canceled the visas of Chinese graduate students who are directly or indirectly associated with the Chinese military.


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