Pandemic pushes steep drop in foreign college students

FILE - In this file photo from June 7, 2019, a man walks by Hamerschlag Hall on the Carnegie Mellon University campus in Pittsburgh. Colleges in the U.S. have seen a sharp enrollment drop among international students in the fall of 2020. University administrators say a number of hurdles and new policies brought on by the coronavirus pandemic are to blame. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)
FILE - In this file photo from June 7, 2019, a man walks by Hamerschlag Hall on the Carnegie Mellon University campus in Pittsburgh. Colleges in the U.S. have seen a sharp enrollment drop among international students in the fall of 2020. University administrators say a number of hurdles and new policies brought on by the coronavirus pandemic are to blame. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File) (Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

TOLEDO, Ohio – Just two semesters short of earning a cybersecurity master’s degree in the U.S., Sai Naini is stuck in India, unsure what his future holds.

He rushed home this summer after learning that his father was in failing health after being diagnosed with COVID-19, making it to his hospital bedside only four hours before he died.

“He was emotional; he was in tears,” Naini said. “I was fortunate to see him. I think he was waiting to see someone who would take care of my mother, and then he left.”

Two months later, when the 28-year-old was ready to return to the University of Toledo, his visa application was denied even though he had letters from his college advisers explaining why he had gone home and that he already was enrolled in classes. The only explanation he got, he said, was that he was turned down “based on guidelines they received from the White House.”

“Everything changed,” he said. “The goals I had changed. The milestones I had changed.”

Complications and new policies brought on by the coronavirus pandemic have stopped thousands of international students from attending universities in the U.S. this fall, raising concerns that the steep decline could foretell a long-lasting shift for universities that have come to rely on attracting international students. At risk are millions of dollars in tuition for the universities and some of the world’s brightest minds for U.S. employers.

While the number of new international enrollees has been on the decline during the past few years because of new rules limiting student visas and competition from other countries, the pandemic has been a crushing blow.

This fall, new international students enrolled at U.S. universities online or in person fell by 43%, according to a survey of more than 700 schools released Monday. That's the largest decrease recorded by the Institute of International Education, which has been publishing data on international enrollment since 1954.