International student numbers decreasing at Iowa State

Due to outstanding circumstances, such as COVID-19 and travel restrictions, international student enrollment has gone down. 

Molly Blanco

International students make a significant contribution to the rich culture at Iowa State. However, the university has seen a steady decline in international enrollment since 2016. 

International enrollment at Iowa State saw a decline of 0.38 percent in fall 2017, followed by a 10.3 percent decline in 2018, 13.4 percent in 2019 and 18.9 percent in 2020. 

Total Iowa State enrollment has declined in the same period, but international student enrollment is falling at a much greater rate. In fall 2020, total enrollment declined 4.7 percent, compared to 18.9 percent for international students. 

Iowa State students and staff explained some of the reasons why international student numbers have dropped in recent years and how they have been impacted by COVID-19. 

Brendan O’Brien, director of the International Students and Scholars Office at Iowa State, said international student enrollment is impacted by travel and immigration restrictions during the pandemic. He cited issues with obtaining visas as a reason for decreasing enrollment. 

“I think the numbers are declining for both new and returning students because of all the travel restrictions of the countries,” said Pearly Das, junior in apparel, merchandising and design and an international student from India. 

Jorge Calderon, assistant director of international enrollment at Iowa State, explained how enrollment statistics do not tell the entire story of the declining international student populations.

“In fall 2020, we saw a decline in enrollment of about 20 percent, which, from my perspective, could have been way worse,” Calderon said. “At some point, we thought we were going to have close to possibly even zero international students.” 

However, Calderon said international student enrollment was projected to be much higher before the pandemic began due to increased applications for fall 2020. 

“Pre-COVID, we were on track to enroll double the number [of international students] that we had enrolled in fall 2019,” he said. 

According to Calderon, undergraduate international student enrollment in fall 2019 was the lowest it had been in years, so the nearly 20 percent decrease in enrollment from 2019 to 2020 was more substantial than it seemed. 

“We ended up enrolling 60 percent less than what we could have enrolled in fall 2020,” Calderon said. 

Fall 2020 international enrollment was at 2,592 students, which was down from 3,198 students in fall 2019. Spring 2021 continued the downward trend, with 2,171 students enrolled. 

Calderon believes one influential factor contributing to the decline in international students is the decreased number of students from China, which has historically been the largest international student population at Iowa State.

Calderon explained that enrollment “significantly shrunk” in both new and continuing students from China during the pandemic. 

Das said some international students decided not to study in the United States because they did not feel welcome. 

“With all the hate Asians are facing, that is also somewhat stopping people … from coming to Iowa State or America itself,” she said. 

O’Brien also attributed some of the declines in enrollment to “a perception that the U.S. is not welcoming to [international] students.” 

Calderon cited the current political environment and students’ perceptions of campus safety as factors impacting international enrollment. 

Despite decreasing numbers of enrollment from China, applications for international freshman students have increased 14 percent since last year. 

Calderon said enrollment is increasing in several countries, including India, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Bangladesh and several others. 

Calderon said Iowa State has increased efforts to recruit international students during the pandemic, expanding virtual efforts in lieu of traveling abroad to recruit potential students. 

“We are not just sitting around hoping for things to improve; we continue to move forward and make improvements ourselves,” he said. 

Calderon said recruitment efforts focus on increasing the number of international applicants and “improving the experience of the students that we are connecting with.” 

Calderon also said increased competition from other universities has contributed to the decline in international students at Iowa State. While the United States has declined in international enrollment, other countries have boosted the recruitment of international students in recent years.

“Thirty years ago, when students studied abroad, the destination was the United States, and we had a very strong market here,” O’Brien explained. “Now, there are so many countries that are hosting international students.” 

Calderon said he expects international enrollment to “significantly improve” by fall 2022. 

O’Brien expects international student numbers to increase even sooner. 

“We’re optimistic that we’re going to see a large number of new students by August,” O’Brien said. 

Das said she also expects enrollment to recover to pre-pandemic levels. 

“It will take some time to get back to normal, to how it used to be, and I think [international enrollment] will be affected for maybe a year or two from now,” Das said. 

O’Brien said the decreasing numbers of international students reduce opportunities for cultural enrichment, both in the classroom and with making personal connections on campus.

“I think that it’s missed opportunities,” O’Brien said. “International students make a great contribution to everything at Iowa State.”