Amid coronavirus, cutting international students jeopardizes colleges

Many international students are not able to come to the U.S. and that could cause a significant disruption in our college system.

For years, there has been a major influx of students studying in this country, particularly from China.

In fact, one-third of all the international students in the U.S. come from China — more than any other nation, both in sheer numbers and as an overall percentage, according to the Institute of International Education.

Prior to the outbreak of the coronavirus, the number of Chinese students in America was roughly 370,000, according to the latest data.

But those numbers had been falling more recently due to more restrictive student visa policies in the U.S. and changing attitudes abroad about studying here.

The coronavirus outbreak “throws fuel on the fire,” said Hafeez Lakhani, the president of New York-based Lakhani Coaching. 

International students in the U.S. contributed nearly $41 billion to the national economy in the 2018-2019 academic year, according to NAFSA: Association of International Educators. (By other accounts, the number is even higher.)

survey by the Institute of International Education revealed that more than one-third of all colleges have already said that some students were unable to come or return to the U.S. from China because of coronavirus-related travel restrictions.

Roughly three-quarters said that outreach or recruiting events in China had been affected by the spread of COVID-19. The institute polled 234 institutions from 43 states in February.

New York University

Jin Lee | Bloomberg | Getty Images

New York University is home to the highest number of international students in the U.S., with nearly 20,000 students coming from around the world.

The university, whose main campus is in Greenwich Village in lower Manhattan, this year received more than 85,000 applications for admission — a record, according to NYU spokesman John Beckman.  

However, “at this juncture, given what we know about the worldwide focus on addressing COVID-19, we have no reason to believe it will be other than business as usual come fall,” he said.

The bottom line

If fewer international students do decide to forgo studying here, it could spell trouble for the colleges that bank on them.

Over the last decade, deep cuts in state funding for higher education have put pressure on schools to admit more students who need less aid, which is why so many schools have come to rely on the revenue from foreign students who typically pay top dollar. 

“Those students are also, by and large, paying full tuition to study in this country,” Lakhani said. “That’s a really valuable tuition base.”

Mid-tier, private universities dependent on international enrollment will be particularly hard hit, according to Lakhani.

“It really does impact the bottom line,” Lakhani said.

Any time you have a pipeline of talented students that can afford tuition that’s going to be cut off, that’s absolutely cause for concern.

Joe Giacalone

executive director of International Admissions at Marist College

“In this climate, any school that’s reliant on full-pay students is going to have a challenge,” said Joe Giacalone, executive director of international admissions at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York.

“Any time you have a pipeline of talented students that can afford tuition that’s going to be cut off, that’s absolutely cause for concern.”

Further, “not every school has large endowments and funding from other resources,” he added.

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As a result, colleges and universities “will be looking for more domestic students paying full tuition,” Lakhani said.

That means those schools may not be able to be as generous with their financial aid offerings, he added. (Currently, about two-thirds of all full-time students receive aid and it is the single most important factor in determining access to a college education.)

“Universities have a tough equation to balance,” Lakhani said.

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