The rapid global spread of the COVID-19 has demonstrated that no matter how successful America is at fighting this pandemic here at home, we will never stop this threat unless we’re also fighting it around the world. In this series of issue briefs, the USGLC takes an in depth look at the global response and COVID-19’s impacts on vulnerable populations, global development and diplomacy, and the future of U.S. global leadership. Read more from our series here.

Last updated August 11, 2021

The global pandemic had an immediate and acute impact on American exchange programs and students – thousands of them through the State Department’s Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs (ECA) programs. For example, the total number of international students enrolled in U.S. schools decreased by 16 percent from the previous year for the fall 2020 academic semester.

This decline has had dramatic economic consequences.  As a global leader in higher education, the United States has historically accepted more than one million international students into its colleges and universities annually; this inbound exchange accounted for nearly $40 billion in economic activity during the 2019-2020 academic year.

  • The American economy lost $1.8 billion and 42,000 jobs through November of 2020 due to the COVID-19 induced decline of international students.

Recovery in Exchange Programs?

As the U.S. navigates the pandemic and its variants, higher education institutions are anticipating a strong recovery in international exchange programs. In June 2021, the Institute of International Education (IIE) released the following survey findings on the future of international educational exchange:

  • The majority of American institutions (86%) are planning in-person study in Fall 2021, and 90% of the institutions surveyed plan to offer in-person study to international students.
  • 43% of institutions report an increase in their international student applications for the 2021-22 academic year, and institutions are committed to recruiting international students through online recruitment events, social media outreach, and partnering with current international students on other campuses.
  • Institutions are optimistic about a return of study abroad programs, with 50% of institutions anticipating an increase in study abroad numbers in the 2021-2022 academic year.

Local study abroad partners have already made adjustments for coronavirus including arrival quarantines, socially distanced and hybrid classrooms, mandatory mask wearing and readily available hand sanitizer, and some are considering vaccine requirements.

While a return to pre-pandemic levels of international exchange will not be immediate, U.S. higher education institutions are planning and hoping for a safe return to in-person instruction, both in the U.S. and at partner institutions abroad.

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