Where and Why: Inside International Students’ Mindset and Motivations

International student enrollment is poised for a postpandemic rebound. Here’s what students—and the data—have to say.
Student mobility is on the rebound. New data and student stories give a glimpse into the postpandemic landscape. Image: Shutterstock

It will come as no surprise to anyone that after years of steady growth, international student enrollment in the United States dropped below 1 million in 2020–2021, following a 15 percent drop the previous year. A pandemic dip was inevitable—it was just a matter of how much of a dip there would be. The top two sending countries, China and India, also saw declines of around 15 percent and 13 percent, respectively, but the number of students coming from those countries declined by less than the overall rate.

Digging into the details behind those numbers reveals that, overall, undergraduate programs were down slightly more than graduate programs—but master’s programs were also hit hard, with a 20 percent decline. Specific groups of students also shrank somewhat dramatically: the number of first-time freshmen declined by 26 percent and enrollment of international students at community colleges dropped by 21 percent, according to the Institute for International Education (IIE).

Now for the good news. Though the landscape of international education remains fundamentally changed, there are early indications of a rebound. According to IIE’s Spring 2022 Snapshot report, international student numbers and applications are up this year, and interest among U.S. students in study abroad programs is gaining ground. IDP Connect’s Emerging Futures survey gives insight into student motivations and decision-making factors when it comes to choosing a study destination postpandemic. (Editor’s note: Read insights from the survey in the sidebar below this article.)

To get a glimpse into students’ mindsets, International Educator spoke with several international students about their experience with U.S. education during the pandemic and how international students’ motivations may have shifted over the last 2 years.


Kriti Gopal, India

Indiana University

At the beginning of the pandemic, Kriti Gopal was in the middle of transferring from a doctoral program at Central Michigan University to one at Indiana University. Gopal, who first came to the United States in 2009 as an undergraduate, says that she wanted to go home and visit her family, but she was unable to leave the country while her paperwork was being transferred to her new university.

Headshot of Kriti Gopal
Kriti Gopal

She moved from Michigan to Indiana in August 2020 and started her new PhD program in higher education online. It didn’t really matter where she was physically, Gopal says, because “I never really got to know the campus.”

It took some time to adjust to online classes, but when the time came to return to the classroom, she didn’t want to go back to in-person learning. “We became very comfortable meeting people online—we didn’t feel the need to meet in person to do group projects,” she says. “We were having these happy hours on Zoom where we would come with drinks.”

Even as the pandemic has waned and vaccines became available, Gopal continued to be cautious about being exposed to the coronavirus because she was alone in another country. “I don't have any immediate family here, so if I become sick with COVID, who's going to help me? I would have to seek help from my classmates or my professors, which again, the only contact I had with them is in this virtual world.”

Indian students still want to come to the United States, she says, but there is a perception that the immigration process is slower and the F-1 visa rejection rate is higher. Some of her friends opted for Canada over the United States for graduate school because Canada has more employment opportunities postgraduation and is perceived to be more welcoming to international students.

Gopal says that one deterrent for international students to come to the United States is the increased number of racial incidents against international students, especially those from Asia. “There's that concern about whether college environments are really safe for international students,” she says.

In addition, the pandemic exacerbated concerns about how easily international students can access the U.S. healthcare system. “You have to have health insurance. But even if you have insurance, it's not like you get access to everything very easily,” she says. “Sometimes things are not covered, and you have to pay out of pocket.”

As part of her PhD program in higher education, Gopal wants to spend the next few years researching the experience of Indian students studying in the United States. “Oftentimes, I see my Indian friends only hanging out within their community,” she says. “So how are institutions actually supporting them to thrive in their program?”

Carrie Tang, China

Oklahoma State University, Southwest Jiaotong University

When Carrie Tang first chose to study at Southwest Jiaotong University in Chengdu, China, in the fall of 2019, she didn’t anticipate completing half of her college education online—or spending her final year in the United States as part of a joint degree program with Oklahoma State University.

Headshot of Carrie Tang
Carrie Tang

She was supposed to start the second semester of her program in fire protection and engineering when the first cases of COVID-19 broke out in China in January 2020. “I missed a whole semester,” she says.

Classes resumed the next fall, but instead of professors from Oklahoma State traveling to China, they recorded lectures that Tang and her classmates watched from the other side of the world. As an engineering student, she said she missed out on vital hands-on learning. “We should do a lot of labs and experiments, but instead we just watched the videos,” says Tang.

Now, she’s one of only three Chinese students from her cohort of more than 40 that decided to come to Oklahoma for their senior year. A few more will come for the final semester in the spring, but the majority decided to remain in China because of the ongoing pandemic.

Tang says that many Chinese students who might have come to the United States in the past chose instead to stay in China or study abroad in the region—in places like Singapore or Hong Kong.

For Tang, spending a year of her undergraduate education in the United States was important for several reasons. She plans to apply to graduate programs in at U.S. institutions engineering next year, so she wanted to improve her English and gain more familiarity with the U.S. education system to prepare the strongest application possible. After spending most of the first 3 years of the program online, she also wanted to learn in a physical classroom.

She’s been in the United States for about a month, and her experience thus far has been “a little bit exciting and a little bit confusing and a little bit stressful.” She says it’s her first time interacting face-to-face with professors who speak English as their native language.

Tang says she is eager to make up for the opportunities she might have otherwise had if the last two years hadn’t been online. She’s looking forward to interacting with her professors in person, potentially working with them on undergraduate research projects, and getting a job on campus.

Rochisshil Varma, India

Michigan State University

Rochisshil Varma, who goes by Rochi, was in his last year of high school in India when he found out he’d be starting his engineering program at Michigan State University online. Since his sophomore year, Varma had his sights set on studying in the United States. He didn’t think his grades were competitive enough to get into the renowned Indian Institute of Technology and studying at a U.S. institution was more affordable than a private university in India, he says.

Headshot of Rochi Varma
Rochi Varma

He wanted to study in the United States because of its focus on hands-on learning as well as the diversity of students, who come from all over the world, he says. And unlike many the many students who were wary of studying online, Varma welcomed it.

“As someone who was much more introverted at the end of high school, I was like, ‘Yay, I'm just sitting on my laptop,’” he says. He enjoyed being on a Zoom call with classmates from around the world without having to travel. While some of his peers, particularly those studying subjects like physics and chemistry, struggled with the instruction mode, he earned straight As.

Some friends and classmates changed their minds about studying in the United States because of the pandemic. Their families had health concerns, or “their parents lost their means of income,” Varma says. Some took a gap year, but others switched to universities in India.

While many of his classmates at Michigan State spent a year online, he studied remotely for three semesters. When he was getting ready to travel to East Lansing in fall 2021, COVID-19 case counts in the United States were on the rise. “My mom is a doctor. She was like, ‘No, you’re not going,’” Varma says, so he postponed.

When he finally arrived in the United States in spring 2022, he started working as a resident assistant in the dorms. “I think I was the first resident assistant in my entire community who had not spent a single semester on campus,” Varma says. “So I came here and I was all of a sudden responsible for 40 students.”

He experienced new things, like finding buildings on campus and seeing snow for the first time, along with the first-year students he was supposed to help acclimate to campus life.

Varma notes that the number of Indian undergraduates studying in the United States might be growing due to their educational experience during the pandemic. Because of the structure of high school curriculum in India, some students feel they are significantly behind on their education after 2 years of online learning. Students planning to study science at an Indian university typically take preparatory classes in high school, whereas the United States has more opportunities to start with the basics. “That’s why they are studying in the United States now,” he says.

Sarah and Sayma El Hoderi, Libya

Houston Community College

For Sarah and Sayma El Hoderi, studying in the United States is a family affair. The two young women from Libya followed in the footsteps of several older siblings who had already studied abroad in the United States.

Sarah and Sayma El Hoderi
Sarah and Samya El Hoderi

Sarah was in the middle of her first semester of college when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020. Originally from Libya, she travelled to Turkey where her family has lived since 2014. Sarah was able to continue her education online for two semesters before she returned to the United States last fall along with her sisters Samar and Sayma.

While Sarah and Samar wanted to be near their family during the pandemic, it wasn’t an easy choice to return to Turkey. “It was kind of a decision that we had to think about so much, especially for the visa — we only have one entry,” said Sarah, who is studying business with the goal of going into information systems management.

Sayma spent her last year of high school online due to the pandemic, travelled to Houston with her older sisters to enroll in an English as a Second Language program at Rice University. She chose the ESL program at Rice over an online program at another university because she wanted in-person interaction after a year behind a computer screen. “I wanted to meet people before I started college, because I felt like there would be more international students who were just like me,” said Sayma, who is majoring in nutrition.

All three sisters are now attending Houston Community College. Sarah says that she thinks that online learning took away some of the most meaningful aspects of studying abroad. “I think one of the biggest impacts is that it took away one of the major comparative advantages of studying abroad which is…having exceptional life experiences,” she says. “Many people think people come to the US for their educational system…however, it is not the only reason why studying abroad is valuable. Getting the chance to get to know people who are different is valuable.”



What the Data Says

Elle Butler, head of marketing in North America for student marketing and recruitment firm IDP Connect, shared analysis of IDP’s Emerging Futures survey. Conducted in spring 2022, the survey reached more than 10,000 prospective students, applicants, and current international students from 93 countries. Its findings reveal insight into international student motivations, trends in enrollment management and application numbers, and pandemic-related decision-making factors.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited lightly for length.


What are international students’ motivations for studying abroad in the United States? What are the factors—for example, safety, cost, reputation, etc.?

Our Emerging Futures research shows that career development and quality of education are the primary drivers of motivation for studying internationally, across all source and destination markets. The research clearly demonstrates that securing a job after graduation is a key objective for most students. Institutions must be able to speak to the return-on-investment of the education they are offering, from the students’ perspective, and show tangible career outcomes. Secondary drivers of motivation for studying abroad are independence, knowledge, and reputable qualifications.

Globally, the United States is perceived to have the highest quality education of all destination markets and is near the front of the pack regarding graduate employment opportunities. Although the United States has shown clear improvement in perceptions of welfare of international students over the past year, it still lags behind leaders like Canada. Other motivators for students choosing the United States are the variety of attractive institutions, availability of scholarships, and internship opportunities. Reasons why students don’t choose the country as their first-choice destination are the expensive cost of tuition and living, the difficulty of obtaining a visa, and the perception that they will feel unsafe. 

While we saw an emergence of online education programs during the pandemic, an overwhelming majority (82 percent) of students are most interested in traditional overseas in-person campus-based study. This number is even higher for Indian students—92 percent—demonstrating that while online programs may offer a more cost-effective solution, most students are interested in the experience of living, studying, and working abroad. China is a notable exception, where just over half (53 percent) of students said they are interested in overseas campus-based study, and more than a third (34 percent) would be interested in studying fully at a satellite campus in China.

The most popular subjects of interest are business and STEM, with three out of ten (30 percent) students considering business-related study and 60 percent considering STEM related subjects. A majority (78 percent) of students responded that their courses directly relate to their intended employment sector, and the top sectors are related to health, science, information technology, and education . When considering changing their intended major, guaranteed employment post-graduation was the most important factor. Nearly a third of students (32 percent) intend to work in their study destination after completing their education . This data highlights the importance of career outcomes as a major motivator for international students.

What are the trends in student mobility that international enrollment management professionals are seeing? What are applications looking like for next year?

We are thrilled to see that demand for international education is rebounding in an impressive manner as the pandemic has slowed. The strong volume growth at IDP is evidence of the underlying structural demand for global education and migration. Looking at our data over the past year, applications have increased across all major destination countries, particularly in the United States, where applications have grown 49 percent from the 2020–21 to 2021–22 school year and continue to grow. Although our Emerging Futures data shows that Canada remains the top destination of choice, the United States follows in a close second, with 20 percent of respondents indicating that the United States is their first choice.

With many competitor countries offering supportive post-work study policies, and the increasing importance of career development as a driver of student choice, the United States needs to re-evaluate its immigration and post-study work policies, prioritize the creation of an international education strategy, and set targets for hosting international students to stay competitive. 

Is there anything else particularly notable about how the pandemic is affecting current and prospective international students' decision making? Are we seeing more regional mobility?

Demand for the United States is returning in major markets like India, but also in emerging diversity markets (all countries served by IDP except China and India). Our real-time Demand Tracker tool shows that the United States is seeing strong interest from emerging markets including Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Turkey, and Vietnam. Enrollments at our IDP U.S. partner institutions from diversity markets increased by almost 60 percent from the 2020–21 to 2021–22 school year.

Diversification of international enrollments is a key goal for many U.S. institutions who want to avoid overreliance on top-senders and legacy markets. With our data showing strong demand from emerging markets, it’s an ideal time for U.S. institutions to invest in recruitment strategies aimed at diversification.

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