All things not equal: SEVIS data show COVID-19 took disproportionate toll on language programs in U.S.

By JP Deering Senior Corporate Communications Advisor
Balance Hans S CC BY ND 2.0

The Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) recently published its 2020 SEVIS by the Numbers report outlining Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) data on F-1 students from calendar year 2020.  The report provides a comprehensive picture of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on international student enrollment at American institutions last year, revealing that the number of international students in the U.S. decreased by 17.86% and the number of new international student enrollments decreased by 72%.

COVID-19 did not take an equal toll on international enrollment at different levels of study.  Associate degree and intensive English programs saw more significant losses than did programs at other levels of study in 2020—especially doctoral programs, which made it through the year relatively unscathed.  This marks a continuation of pre-pandemic trends up until 2019/20, and it threatens to erase early signs of recovery for associate degree and intensive English programs which emerged just before the pandemic began.

According to the 2020 SEVIS report, 85,909 F-1 students sought an associate degree during calendar year 2020—a 19.9% decrease from 107,312 in 2019.  Meanwhile, the number of F-1 students who sought a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degree fell by 13%, 16%, and 4.7%, respectively, over the course of 2020.  The report does not offer data on international students in intensive English programs for all of 2020, though we may draw on September 2020 data to determine losses at this level.

During the three years preceding the pandemic, the number of international students in associate degree and intensive English programs in the U.S. decreased by 3.9% and 3.4% on average, respectively.  These declines accelerated to a 22% drop for associate degree programs and an astounding 43% drop for intensive English programs between January and September 2020, representing excess declines of 18.1 percentage points and 39.6 percentage points, respectively, given the prior three-year average rates of change.

In contrast, the number of international students who pursued a doctoral degree in the U.S. decreased by 4% in the first three quarters of 2020.  Given an average growth rate of 0.4% during the previous three years, this represents an excess decline of just 4.4 percentage points—the least significant excess decline at any level of study.

Beyond the pandemic, program availability explains variations in declines between these levels of study.  Opportunities to gain unparalleled research experience drive successful international applicants to American doctoral programs, despite obstacles to enrollment, whereas language training students may easily find more viable, less expensive alternatives closer to home.

Unfortunately, these plunges follow signs that pre-pandemic declines in the number of international students in intensive English programs at U.S. institutions had begun to plateau.  According to the Institute for International Education’s (IIE’s) 2020 Open Doors report, the number of intensive English students at U.S. institutions fell by just 3.3% in 2019/20, following a 14.8% decrease in 2018/19. 

Meanwhile, the number of intensive English students coming to U.S. institutions from China, the top sender for international language training students in the U.S., grew by 6.7% in 2019/20, following a 17.7% decrease in 2018/19.  Similarly, the number of intensive English students from Saudi Arabia grew by 6.7% in 2019/20—the first period of growth since a drop in oil prices in 2014 led to fewer state-sponsored study abroad opportunities, spurring a five-year, 73.7% decline.

Equally disconcerting is the fact that, following a three-year average rate of growth of 0.43%, international enrollment in bachelor’s degree programs decreased by 19.9% between January and September 2020, representing the second-most significant excess decline among levels of study—20.33 percentage points.  U.S. universities should beware of declines in intensive English programs, which may in turn lead to decreases in bachelor’s programs as they did before the pandemic.

Despite these negative revelations, those at U.S. universities have cause for hope.  Recent research shows the U.S. remains the first-choice destination for 97% of Chinese students’ parents, while Indian and other South Asian students’ interest in U.S. study is rebounding quickly as global mobility resumes.  In light of President Biden’s efforts to vaccinate the U.S. and reverse unfriendly immigration policy, U.S. institutions stand to overcome the challenges posed by COVID-19—but only if they implement data-driven international recruitment strategies.

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