Nikita Chinchwade moved from India to the U.S. last fall to get a master's degree.

"It had been a dream of mine for a very long time because of the quality of education here," she says.

The U.S. has historically been a top destination for international students. At last count there were more than a million. They're attracted by the high-tech facilities and opportunities for research; the easy, nonhierarchical interaction between faculty and students; and the open, social e­nvironment on campuses.

But this year, in a survey of more than 700 colleges and universities, the Institute of International Education found total international enrollment plummeted 16% between fall of 2019 and fall of 2020. Statistics on new international students was even grimmer — a 43% drop. Tens of thousands have deferred enrollment.

"We've never had a decrease like that," said Allan Goodman, who heads the Institute of International Education. But he added that he believes the numbers will go back up once the coronavirus pandemic passes, predicting "surges of students" enrolling. "What we do know is, when pandemics end, there's tremendous pent-up demand."

While the pandemic is an obvious reason for the decline, some experts point out that international student enrollment has been declining since 2016.

All this has serious consequences for higher education. To put it simply: These students bring in a lot of money.

Before the pandemic, international students contributed about $44 billion a year to the U.S. economy, says Rachel Banks, senior director for public policy and legislative strategy at NAFSA: Association of International Educators, citing an analysis from the 2018-2019 school year. And those students support about half a million jobs.

"They typically pay higher tuition rates than domestic students do," Banks says. "And in some instances, they'll even pay more than out-of-state students would. So schools certainly would feel that directly."

These students contribute more than money, bringing social and cultural diversity to U.S. campuses.

"Everybody is learning from each other. So you want to cast your net as wide as you can," says Martin McFarlane, director of international student services at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The campus has among the highest number of international students of any university in the U.S., more than 10,500.

McFarlane says higher education is all about an exchange of ideas: "We are so interconnected globally that if you are cutting yourself off from that, you're doing yourself a disservice."

A Duke University study found that domestic students who engaged with international students enhanced their self-confidence, leadership and quantitative skills. U.S. undergrads were also more likely to "appreciate art [and] literature," "place current problems in historical perspective" and "read or speak a foreign language."

The United States has long recognized the long-term benefit to hosting these students in terms of influence and magnifying the country's diplomatic "soft power." A recent study shows that the U.S. educated 62 of last year's world leaders. And research has found that international students develop a trust with their host countries, which also leads to future visits and future business interactions.

About half of international students come to the U.S. to study in the STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and math. A 2017 analysis found that foreign nationals, for example, make up 81% of full-time graduate students in electrical engineering, 79% in computer science and 59% in civil engineering.

Alexis Abramson, dean of the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth, worries about having fewer international students in the STEM fields. "We're all very concerned that the U.S. will lose its competitive edge," she says. "Engineers and scientists invent things and innovate and solve a lot of the most pressing problems facing our world."

A recent survey of 500 U.S. university officials found several reasons for fewer international students, including the visa process and high tuition costs as well as the political climate and feeling "unwelcome." For the first time, a main reason listed was "global competition." In stark contrast to the U.S. declines over the past few years, the U.K., Canada and Australia have seen enrollment spikes.

Banks of NAFSA isn't surprised. She says the Trump administration has made it harder to study in the U.S. through its anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies. Competitor countries, she adds, are stepping in to fill the void, "falling over themselves to say, 'Look, the United States doesn't want you, but we do!' "

Arvind Ganesh always wanted to study in the United States. He's 22 and originally from Chennai, India. But when the time came to make a decision for graduate school, he chose Canada. "The education expense is one thing; the cost of living is another," he explained. The U.S. also has "the problem of security to international students. I'm talking about racial bias."

Students like Ganesh have contributed to double-digit increases in Canada. It has lower tuition costs, generous work-study policies and clear pathways to permanent residency and citizenship.

The U.K., America's biggest competitor for international students, is also trying hard to recruit more, with an ambitious goal of 600,000 students by 2030. As part of its Study UK effort, officials have relaxed policies so students can stay and get more work experience after they graduate.

Ganesh starts classes in a month and is excited about making friends and learning about Canada. He's not too worried about culture shock, saying he has heard Canadians are very friendly. "Even though it's a very cold country, but you still feel warm when you feel people are welcoming and embracing."

He says that's what makes a different country feel like a home away from home.

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