International Students Begin Their Return to the U.S. Following Difficult Pandemic Year

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, a mass exodus of students made their way home as universities closed their doors and classes were moved online. While all students were robbed of the traditional college experience during this time, none felt the strain of this shift more than the international student population. These students had to grapple with everything from travel restrictions and visa difficulties, to online learning at all hours of the night to fit the schedules of their student counterparts in the U.S.

Starting in fall 2020, international students struggled to make their way to the U.S., while student housing owners and operators — particularly in university markets that traditionally housed a large number of international students — struggled to figure out when these students would be back and how to fill their beds in the interim. 

During last year’s InterFace Student Housing conference in July, many owners and operators were still in the dark as to when the international student population would be back in full force. And while levels are not at their historic norms, the fall and spring of the 2021-2022 academic year saw many more international students return to U.S. universities, brightening the light at the end of the tunnel. 

Fall Sees Acceleration

As a country, the U.S. saw a big bounce back in applications for new international students ahead of the fall 2021-2022 academic year, according to Wesley Deese, owner of Providential Student Housing. “Now that doesn’t mean all universities are seeing an uptick in new international students, and it doesn’t mean those students who were accepted and enrolled actually started the semester in the U.S.,” he says.

As the Delta variant was expanding over the summer, a lot of students encountered travel restrictions and quarantine requirements that forced them to start the semester remotely or pause their enrollment, notes Deese. 

Data collected by Greystar substantiates this trend, showing that international student enrollment declined by 14.4 percent from 2019 to 2020 due to COVID restrictions, but has recovered close to pre-COVID levels in 2021. “Despite the decline in international students, high-quality universities maintained enrollment levels with domestic students and a strong first year class in 2021,” says Greystar Senior Managing Director of University Partnerships Julie Skolnicki.

“From the latest data available to us, the top 25 universities with the most international student exposure maintained strong enrollment during COVID,” she continues. “What happened to those schools during the pandemic has proven our thesis that high-quality universities are resilient to overall demand fluctuations.”

Greystar has also seen continued growth to above pre-COVID levels in the graduate school international student population. “International graduate student levels dropped 7 percent in 2020, but there has been a strong recovery for those students in 2021 with an increase of 12.7 percent, netting 4.8 percent above 2019 pre-pandemic levels,” says Skolnicki.

Similar numbers are being seen at properties managed by Campus Life & Style, Vesper Holding’s wholly-owned management arm. “We are absolutely seeing more international students this season, but not to pre-COVID levels,” says Chief Marketing Officer Jessica Nix. 

“In our portfolio, we have a few properties with over 10 percent international residents,” she continues. “At our Northeastern properties where we do have far more, it was clear to see last season that this demographic was missing. We are very fortunate to have had a master lease for international students that was honored, but many of the beds remained empty.”  

“This season things are looking much brighter, yet we are still not seeing as many Chinese students as before,” says Nix. “We are being told by our university partners that they are pivoting their recruiting efforts to bring in more Middle Eastern students since the Chinese market is still sluggish.”

For Jonas Emre, founder of Harrington Housing, demand has increased over the course of the past year, with 30 percent to 40 percent of property capacity coming from the international student population. “We are still behind where we were planning to be, but we are seeing more students willing to attend in-person classes and the safety concerns are a bit more on the back burner. In every level of society, restrictions are easing and study visa applications are being awarded more frequently, which is leading to higher demand. Interest has returned at a higher level and beyond.”

“We’ve had a busier spring semester than I’ve seen in my four years with Uhomes, and I think a lot of that is pent up demand,” agrees Larry Satkoski, director of business development with Uhomes, a booking platform which helps students find accommodations at universities. “With the uncertainty last year and the Delta variant catching a lot of news around the summertime, a lot of students waited if they could until the spring.”

Omicron Impact

Another question on the minds of many is whether or not the Omicron variant — and other variants to come — will have an impact on the international student population moving forward. “What we have seen so far is a slower than usual start to the cycle from international markets as Omicron numbers spike, causing students to wait to make decisions,” says Dan Baker, general manager with student.com, a platform that helps students find accommodations in over 400 cities worldwide. 

“We are trending 42 percent down from where we’d expect to be at this time of year as a result. For now, this should have no lasting impact on the cycle and will just lead to a period of compressed seasonality rather than an impact on the overall numbers,” he says.

Deese agrees that he does not anticipate Omicron having a lingering impact on overall numbers. “Student modality into the U.S. for spring semester is mostly focused on study abroad programs and English language programs,” he says. “I’m sure Omicron has caused some delays and likely cancellations, but numbers have not been published regarding that impact and I’m not really hearing anything from the institutions about it.”

Greystar has not seen any negative impact on enrollment or housing occupancy due to Omicron, according to Skolnicki. “We saw a few campuses delay January returns or in-person classes by a few days,” she says. “Overall the return to spring schedule was very smooth. We saw some increased occupancy in spring on campuses that started fall 2021 with hybrid modality, but moved to a higher percentage of in-person classes in the spring of 2022.”

At Campus Life & Style, several properties were impacted by indecision related to the Omicron variant. “For spring starting leases, we have had many more no-shows from internationals whose families were impacted by COVID or did not return due to fears from the spike in cases,” says Nix.

Speaking to the Chinese student population, which he works with frequently, Satkoski does not anticipate Omicron to cause much concern over the next year. “We’ve heard that a number of Chinese students have gotten Omicron and recovered fairly quickly, and as such a tight-knit community, it has led to less fear regarding this variant,” he says. “Most people understand that we’re not getting rid of COVID, so students are looking to protect themselves, but not give up studying overseas. Everyone gets more comfortable when there are less unknowns and it’s still extremely compelling to come to the U.S. to study.”

Moving Forward

The overall outlook for international students and their return for the 2022-2023 academic year is bright, with some believing that numbers should be back to normal by fall semester. “Our expectation is that the U.S. will see a return to more normal international student numbers for the 2022-2023 academic year,”  says Student.com’s Baker. “As countries around the world increasingly learn to live with COVID in a similar way to the U.S., it will become less of a barrier to travel and study. But levels might fall short of historical highs with the pandemic still causing small barriers to entry for some.”

Skolnicki of Greystar agrees, noting that a continued correction in student and international student enrollment is likely as we continue to move from the pandemic to the endemic phase of COVID. “International travel and campus teaching modalities have settled down and early fall 2022 application data shows continued velocity at high-quality four-year public and private universities,” she says.

For Deese of Providential Student Housing, the pandemic has taught a lesson about expecting the unexpected. “If there is anything we’ve learned over the past two years, it is that situations can change quickly,” he says. “I think the U.S. will have a large cohort of new international students coming this fall. With Australia still locked down, we will continue to see a push of more students to the U.S.”

“India’s population growth and increase in middle class income will also continue to push a large export of college students to the U.S. as well,” continues Deese. “Hopefully we are entering an endemic stage with COVID and variants will continue to be more mild. But as we saw this past year with the Delta variant, when it was surging through India in March and April of 2021, it did not have an impact on applications for enrollment but delayed the visa application process. So much so that it impacted those students’ ability to travel to the U.S. by August and September.  As an industry, this means we’ll have to keep an eye on new variants.”

Katie Sloan

This article was originally published in the January/February 2022 issue of Student Housing Business magazine. To subscribe, please click here