12 Top Reasons Why International Students Continue To Fall In The U.S.

What’s behind the slump in international student enrollment in U.S. MBA programs? Some blame visa issues; others point to politics

For U.S. business schools, the canary in the coal mine became Harvard Business School‘s surprising announcement in early June that its incoming class of MBA students this fall will be more than 200 students short of its typical class size of 930 to 940 candidates. The primary reason: Many admitted students from outside the U.S. can’t get student visas in time to start the program or they face travel restrictions due to the pandemic that prevents them from getting to the U.S.

Enrollment of new international students this fall is expected to plunge 63% to 98% from 2018-2019 levels, according to a National Foundation for American Policy analysis. The more dire percentage in that range would place enrollment of new international students at its lowest level since the end of World War II.

Yet, it may surprise some that even before the COVID-19 outbreak that closed U.S. embassies and consulates across the world, making it impossible for many to get a student visa in a timely manner, the number one reason for declining international enrollment was already the visa issue. Last year, in fact, it was at the top of the 12 major reasons cited by higher education officials for the continuing decline in foreign students, according to a survey by the IIE Center for Academic Mobility Research and Impact.


Among U.S. institutions experiencing declining new enrollment, an overwhelming majority listed the visa application process issues or delays/denials as the top reason for fall 2019 drops in new enrollment. The proportion of institutions citing this factor grew from 68.4% in fall 2017 to 86.9% in fall 2019. Even among institutions that reported that their new enrollment had increased or stayed the same, visa issues remained the top issue when asked about factors that may be affecting their institution (81.5%).

This coming year, when the organization fields its latest surveys, you can not only bet that visas will remain the number one issue for falling international enrollment. It should reach new records. After all, due to the pandemic, many U.S. embassies remain closed and routine services, including the processing of student visas, are still suspended. The State Department says visa services are being phased back in, but it hasn’t given dates for when it will reopen which consulates. And even if consulates in countries that send the largest numbers of students, such as India, reopen soon, there’s likely to be a big backlog of applications to be processed.

Stanford’s Graduate School of Business recently began offering internationals deferments due to the problem. “Despite our expectations that embassies would begin opening in July, many continue to offer limited visa services,” wrote MBA admissions chief Kirsten Moss in a July 13th email. “We recognize the stress this has caused for international students who need a visa to travel to Stanford, and we want to support you during this challenging time. We know that obtaining a visa is out of both your and Stanford’s control, and we also cannot predict when embassies will resume regular operations. Given this uncertainty, we are offering those admitted students who need a visa to travel to Stanford the opportunity to defer enrollment. If you request a deferral, you may choose to enroll either in the fall of 2021 or the fall of 2022.”


Yet, the challenge of getting a student visa is hardly the only reason why international enrollments keep falling in the U.S. The IEE survey found that among institutions reporting declines, an overwhelming majority (95.3%) said that multiple factors contributed to falling new student enrollment numbers. Institutions continued to cite visa application issues or delays/denials, the increasingly competitive global market of higher education options, the social and political environment, and the costs of U.S. higher education as the leading factors contributing to declines in new enrollment.

In every single one of these categories, the situation has only worsened. The reputation and prestige of international business schools have only increased, making them viable alternatives to U.S. options. It’s no accident that INSEAD, with its entering MBA classes on campuses in France and Singapore, recently reported a 57% surge in applications to its ten-month-long MBA program.

Trump’s penchant for creating headlines around the world on its anti-immigration policies have made even more internationals feel less than welcome in the U.S. The racial unrest, which exploded with the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, will only make more prospective international students fearful of coming to study in the U.S. And finally, costs to attend a U.S. business school not only remain high; they continue to climb.

Here are the top 12 reasons cited:

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