IIE Releases Survey on Effects of COVID-19 on International Students and Study Abroad

NEW YORK, March 5, 2020—A survey released today by the Institute of International Education (IIE) shows the effects that travel restrictions related to the outbreak of COVID-19 (coronavirus) are having on international student mobility, U.S. study abroad programs, and international student recruitment for the fall 2020 semester. More than 230 U.S. higher education institutions responded to this survey, which was conducted from February 13-26, 2020. While this survey focused on the effects of the outbreak in China, future surveys on the effects of coronavirus will address more recent developments and spread of the disease in other countries.

International Students

  • 37 percent of institutions reported that some students were unable to come or return to the U.S. campus from China because of coronavirus-related travel restrictions.
    • Of those institutions, 100 percent reported being in contact with those students to discuss flexible study or distance learning, leaves of absence, refunds, or other opportunities.
  • 76 percent of institutions reported that outreach or recruiting events in China had been affected by the coronavirus outbreak, including in-person tests, recruitment events, and other engagements.
    • Institutions are responding by leveraging virtual communications and webinars, offering online language testing in lieu of in-person tests, waving graduate entrance testing requirements, extending application deadlines, and offering deferrals.
    • 20 percent of institutions do not yet have plans for alternative recruitment, although they are aware this may affect enrollment for the 2020/21 academic year.

Study Abroad

  • 21 percent of institutions reported enrolled students on study abroad programs in China when the coronavirus-related travel restrictions went into effect.
    • The majority (70 percent) of those institutions reported that those students had been or were being evacuated.1
  • 48 percent of respondents reported that their institutions had students scheduled to go on study abroad programs in China in the spring 2020 semester.
    • Of those, 94 percent had postponed or cancelled those programs, with 76 percent canceled outright or postponed indefinitely.
    • 48 percent of institutions reported that students whose study abroad programs to China were affected were placed in programs in other destinations.
    • Taiwan, Singapore, and Vietnam were among the most common destinations in Asia for placements. Outside Asia, many students were placed in programs in Australia, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere in Europe.
    • 30 percent of institutions reported that students had postponed their study abroad plans to later in 2020 and 29 percent did not yet know what students’ plans were.2

Selected Quotations from Respondents

  • We have collaborated with students’ academic advisors, dormitory administrators, health, travel and safety managers for university travel risk as well as the students directly to determine the best course of action for their enrollment and maintenance of legal status.
    Large, Private, Not-for-profit university in the Northeast
  • Our International Student office has sent out mass communications to our entire F-1, J-1, and H-1B populations to ensure them that we are here for them during this global health crisis, including to connect them to mental health resources or to discuss any instances of discrimination that they may have experienced, on- or off-campus.
    Medium-sized, Private, Not-for-profit university in the Midwest
  • Undergraduate students [who were unable to come to campus] have withdrawn for the semester, some students are pursuing studies in another country, and graduate students are working with their academic programs accordingly to continue their coursework.
    Large, Public university in the South
  • As more U.S. universities cancel their Asia recruitment travels, our Admissions team plans to connect with peers to offer online admissions webinars in partnership with key international schools in China and other Asian countries to make up for not being there in person this season.
    Medium-sized, Private, Not-for-profit university in the Midwest
  • For our current Chinese students who are already on campus, we have checked in with them to see how they are coping with COVID-19 in their country. We try to show that we care for them and their families.
    Medium, Public community college in the Midwest
  • We were exploring the feasibility of targeting China as a high priority country for global engagement across multiple sectors. This proposal is now on hold.
    Small, Public university in the South
  • We have formed a task force to share information about the college’s preparations, and to liaise with the local public health department. We’ve sent a brief message about these activities to students and parents.
    Small, Private, Not-for-profit college in the West
  • We are monitoring the effects on partner institutions especially in Japan and have held off sending our exchange students for the next cycle until they give the approval to do so based on their national and institutional regulations.
    Large, Public community college in the West

Survey Details

There were more than 1 million international students in the United States in the 2018/19 academic year, according to the Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange, which is published annually by IIE with support from the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. 369,548 students, 33.7 percent of the total, were from China.

Survey respondents were affiliated with a U.S. higher education institution and self-identified as tracking inbound or outbound student mobility as part of their role. The institutions represented in these responses hosted 47 percent of students from China in the United States, and included 19 of the top 20 hosts of students from China.

234 institutions from 43 states responded to this survey. 55 percent of the institutions represented in this survey were public colleges and universities, 45 percent were private, not-for-profit institutions. 1 was a private, for-profit institution. 28 percent of institutions had fewer than 5,000 students; 19 percent had 5,000 – 9,999 students; 22 percent had 10,000 – 19,999 students; and 31 percent had more than 20,000 students.

IIE conducted this survey through the IIENetwork, IIE’s membership organization with over 1,300 member institutions, including colleges and universities, national and international exchange agencies, and educational not-for-profit organizations around the world. Only U.S. higher education institutions were included in this survey.

About the Institute of International Education
IIE was established in 1919 with the founding premise that international exchange could make the world a safer and more interconnected place. IIE works to build more peaceful and equitable societies by advancing scholarship, building economies and promoting access to opportunity. IIE collaborates with a wide range of corporate, government and foundation partners across the globe to design and manage scholarship, study abroad, workforce training and leadership development programs.

1The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention raised the Travel Advisory for China to Level 3, Avoid Nonessential Travel, on February 22 while this survey was in the field. Some institutions in this survey may have changed their decision on evacuation because of this after they submitted their response.

2Numbers in this question did not sum to 100 percent because some institutions identified students as falling into multiple categories.


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