top of page

CIANA Explains: The Impact of COVID-19 on International Students

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States led globally in the number of international students it hosted. At the end of 2019, international students in the United States numbered 1,095,299, making up 5.5% of the total population of those pursuing higher education. Not only bringing a wealth of cultures, perspectives, languages, and knowledge, they contributed $44.7 billion in 2019 alone to the U.S. economy.

For international students in the U.S., three main visa options are available. The F1 Visa and J1 Visa, which both allow for employment, and the M1 Visa which does not. These visas generally give students 60 days after they finish their education to enroll in another program, obtain a visa through alternative means, or leave the country.

Much of this changed in March 2020 with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. As movement began to become restricted, chaos ensued for international students who were currently enrolled in American universities. Over 1,000 universities and colleges shut down and finished the spring semester with online classes. Some schools allowed students to remain in student housing, while most gave students very limited time to pack their belongings and leave their campuses. This was much more complicated for students whose families did not reside in the United States, especially because various travel bans went into effect in March. Ninety percent of international students remained in the U.S., which posed its own financial and logistical issues. They feared that they would be forced to leave the country despite pursuing remote learning at their universities and that they might face obstacles to enroll in the upcoming fall semester.

Almost $7 billion was set aside for international student relief, yet many were ineligible to receive the economic aid. To qualify, a student must have been attending a US IIENetwork member institution, been enrolled for the fall 2020 semester, held either a F-1 or J-1 visa, and demonstrated a high financial need to cover living expenses. Many students meet three out of the four eligibility requirements, yet all four are needed to qualify.

As Ms. Cai, a USC cinema major from China, told the New York Times, “All we want is to continue our education in peace during a global pandemic. It seems this administration has no concern for international students beyond our wallets.”

The stress only increased in July when the Trump administration issued a federal policy imposing harsher regulations on international students. In order to stay in the U.S., they were required to enroll in at least one in-person course in the fall. As most universities planned on continuing entirely virtual learning through the fall, this policy would have forced foreign students into deportation, throwing the world of higher education into turmoil. The policy caused much public backlash from students and universities alike, and the order was rescinded days later.

However, this is just one of many attempts by the Trump administration to deter foreign students by making the process increasingly arduous and complicated. In May, the White House issued an executive order that banned Chinese graduate students on F or J visas from coming into the United States. The shutdown of many embassies worldwide also exacerbated the decrease in overall student visas issued and increased the wait times for students to receive their visas. In September, the Department of Homeland Security also proposed a rule that limits student visas to a fixed four years, only available for extension through a tough application process. Currently, immigrants with F, J, and I visas are admitted for the period of time outlined under their specific visa duration, rather than a fixed period of four years.

Furthermore, the way in which the U.S. dealt with international students throughout the pandemic caused a loss of trust in the government, perhaps dissuading foreign students from coming to the U.S. Concern about health care, immigration, and visa status are expected to prompt a significant drop in foreign student enrollment and shatter America’s status as a leading educational destination. While Canada and the UK loosened restrictions for international students, the U.S. increased the restrictions, thus having the highest rate of international students hoping to defer enrollment as compared to other English-speaking countries.

As a result of this decline in enrollment, U.S. educational institutions and the economy broadly will suffer. This year, NAFSA reported that the 2019-2020 international enrollment declines have cost schools in the U.S. $1.8 billion. As the NAFSA Executive Director and CEO Esther D. Brimmer said, observing these declines, “We are reminded of the immense contributions that international students bring to America. We cannot afford to lose these talented individuals to a competitor country.” International students generally pay a higher tuition than American students and universities are dependent on this revenue to keep themselves running. Moreover, the post-graduation contributions of foreign students are crucial to the U.S. economy as a whole. In 2018 alone, they were accountable for creating over 400,000 jobs.

The United States relies on vast social and economic contributions of international students, yet the policies implemented this year in particular have had the opposite effect. However, the upcoming presidential administration transition does provide optimism.

President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to undo many of the Trump administration’s changes to student visa requirements and loosen visa restrictions. Although Biden’s plan does not specify the exact changes, it outlines his hopes to expand visas for “permanent, employment-based immigration — and promote mechanisms to temporarily reduce the number of visas during times of high U.S. unemployment.” It will not be an easy task, however, for the Biden administration to reverse four years of restrictive immigration policy implementation. Reversing the Muslim travel ban and reinstating DACA will be the easiest changes, thus likely the first. Other policies will prove more difficult to undo, ultimately depending on which party controls the Senate. The Biden administration also has the additional challenge of winning back the trust of immigrants who have only seen mounting restrictions in the past four years.


International students are just one aspect of immigration as a whole, yet they contribute widely and significantly to American society and the economy. International students deserve the same opportunities as those provided to American students. As the new presidential administration takes office, we hope to see its promises put into action.

Photo: The New York Times


bottom of page