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U.S. Schools Aim To Lure Foreign Students Back Who Shied Away During The Pandemic

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Biden administration is hoping to lure back tens of thousands of international students who stayed away from U.S. campuses during the pandemic. Foreign enrollment fell by 20% last year. And that cost colleges and universities almost $10 billion in lost revenue. Here's the problem with luring the students back, though - foreign students were turning away from the U.S. even before the pandemic. Karin Fischer reports.

KARIN FISCHER, BYLINE: Foreign students bring a lot to the table. They offer U.S. colleges diversity, brains and solid tuition. International students are more likely than Americans to pay full freight. At public universities, the out-of-state tuition they pay has helped make up for a drop in state funding. Robert Daly heads the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center. He argues that colleges have become too reliant on students from one country, China.

ROBERT DALY: They need the tuition. They need full, four-year, out-of-state tuition payers. They've become addicted to this money.

FISCHER: And when the pandemic sliced away a huge chunk of foreign students, the new administration took note. Higher education is one of the nation's largest service exports, bigger than the often-touted ag exports like corn and soybeans. Unlike the Trump administration's hostility to foreigners, the Biden administration recently called it a foreign policy imperative that the U.S. remain the top study destination for international students. It's putting students first in line for interviews and visa processing at U.S. consulates around the world. And some foreign students are starting to come back. But for many, it remains a hard sell.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LUKMAN ARSALAN: Good evening for those of you in China.

FISCHER: Here's the Zoom recruiting session put on by Franklin & Marshall, a small liberal arts college in Lancaster, Pa. Like many schools, Franklin & Marshall relies heavily on foreign students. Not only was he dealing with the pandemic, but Dean of Admissions Lukman Arsalan was holding this session two days after the violent uprising at the U.S. Capitol.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ARSALAN: It might appear that the U.S. is in chaos. And I wanted to acknowledge that.

FISCHER: Safety is a big concern. And anti-Asian hate crimes have made some students reconsider their futures in the U.S. Lily Cao is a student from China who just graduated from Mount Holyoke. Early in the pandemic, she was confronted in a grocery store by a woman accusing her of spreading the coronavirus.

LILY CAO: In the past, I have thought about, you know, staying in the U.S. and continuing my career. But right now, after COVID, I am not sure anymore.

FISCHER: This new hesitancy spells big concerns for colleges and to the larger U.S. economy, which is propelled by immigrant entrepreneurs, many of whom came here as college students. In 2018, foreign enrollment peaked at 1.1 million students. And it's been declining ever since, as countries like Australia, Canada and the U.K. siphon off foreign students. Emily Dobson is a college counselor in Brazil. She says U.S. colleges just aren't front and center for her students anymore.

EMILY DOBSON: The students just said, you know, we're not seeing the future we used to see here. We're going to go to other schools. We're going to go look at the U.K. a little bit more. We're going to go look at Trinity Dublin.

FISCHER: The pandemic may offer something of a blueprint, though, for how U.S. colleges can regain their competitive edge. Key to that may be more hybrid and online programs that could shorten the amount of time students would need to be in the U.S. And colleges hope a new commitment by the Biden administration to welcome international students can reignite the American dream for students from abroad.

For NPR News, I'm Karin Fischer.

INSKEEP: Karin Fischer writes for the Chronicle of Higher Education and produced this story with APM Reports as part of a documentary called "Fading Beacon: Why America Is Losing International Students."

(SOUNDBITE OF SHIN JOONG HYUN'S "THE RISING SUN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.