The number of international students enrolled at BYU declined by 300 students from 2020 to 2021, despite an upward tick in overall enrollment.
Data provided to The Daily Universe by BYU’s communications team shows that while overall enrollment increased by 6%, international student enrollment fell by 20%. However, that 20% drop is lower than the national average decrease of 43%, according to data from the State Department and the Institute of International Education.
“The dip in (BYU’s) numbers is directly connected to the challenges presented by COVID-19, with many students either not coming due to visa/pandemic restraints or people leaving to be at home, “Hard to compare these numbers to past years because of that,” BYU spokesperson Todd Hollingshead said.
Understanding enrollment declines
The pandemic might not be completely at fault for declines. Colleges nationwide have seen international enrollment figures steadily decrease since 2016, although the total number of international students in the U.S. still exceeds 1 million.
While enrollment was already on a downward slope before former President Donald Trump took office, his administration’s tightened immigration laws and anti-immigrant rhetoric likely exacerbated the issue.
A March 2020 report by NAFSA: Association of International Educators found that “university and industry leaders acknowledge that anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies contribute to a chilling effect on international study in the United States” and that “international students and scholars feel less safe and less welcome in the United States than the previous year surveyed.”
A similar report from Graduate Management Admission Council titled “Early Warning Signals: Winners and Losers in The Global Race for Talent” found that visa struggles, the impact of anti-immigrant rhetoric and prospective students’ concerns about safety were key to declines in international student enrollment. In fact, 54% of potential Indian students and 50% of potential Chinese students reported that the U.S.’s political environment would prevent them from applying to a business school in the U.S.
These concerns came to a head during 2020. Just months into the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trump administration announced international students would be forced to leave the country if their universities held remote classes.
Students were left scrambling to figure out ways to stay in the country, and several universities moved to block the rule in court. The rule was eventually changed to just block first-year students from entering the U.S. if their colleges would be completely online.
Then in September 2020, the Department of Homeland Security released a proposal that would limit the time international students can study in the U.S. to two or four years. The proposal was met with widespread backlash from immigration advocates, members of Congress and universities, including BYU. The proposal’s fate — and that of the thousands of students it would impact — is still in limbo.
In addition, costs and competition from other countries and changes in government scholarship programs have also impacted enrollment.
Provo resident Celeste Merrill is in the process of creating an organization to help students have international education experiences. While she’s seen the positive impact of these kinds of experiences, helping her daughter’s mission companion try to apply to BYU and BYU-Idaho from South Africa has opened her eyes to some of the challenges international students face in coming to the U.S.
“I realized that there’s a huge need for not just financial help but for resources and information and even just a place to ask questions,” Merrill said.
For potential students like the one Merrill is currently assisting, the $4,000 deposit required for international students and finding resources, like WiFi and tutoring, to help them pass the TOEFL test (a standardized test to measure the English skills of non-native speakers wishing to enroll in English-speaking universities) can be huge barriers
“It’s just nearly impossible,” Merrill said, adding that she wished BYU could help potential students mitigate these factors, especially for students who come from less developed countries.
BYU Continuing Education currently offers a TOEFL preparation class, but the cost is $115 plus textbooks. The university’s website does not list exceptions for the international student deposit, which is refunded during a student’s final semester before graduation unless a student petitions for an early refund due to financial hardship.
Looking toward the future
Not all hope may be lost, though. In a report on the “Trump effect” on international student enrollment in U.S. universities, researchers from Central Michigan University found that countering the barriers that deter students from studying in the U.S. means “providing international students, staff and faculty the opportunity to see beyond the blustering of nationalistic and isolationist themed policies.”
“Colleges must reinforce the democratic ideals of education while standing firm against the growing social divide to reverse the current course,” the report states. “Continued vigilance in representing higher education’s mission while providing tools and representation for those affected by the Trump administration’s policies is crucial to counteracting the anti-internationalization movement in the United States.”
Likewise, Allan Goodman, the president of the Institute of International Education, told NPR that while the decrease is unprecedented, he believes numbers will go back up once the pandemic is over. “What we do know is, when pandemics end, there’s tremendous pent-up demand.”