University of Iowa sees drop in international student enrollment

The drop is a part of an ongoing trend that has been exacerbated by pandemic related safety concerns and restrictions.


Jenna Galligan

The Old Capitol is seen on Thursday, March 12, 2020.

Mary Hartel, News Reporter

International student enrollment at the University of Iowa has shrunk 45 percent in the last five years, according to the state Board of Regents.

The decline was expected, and is part of an ongoing trend nationwide that has been exacerbated by pandemic complications.

Michael Bortscheller, UI associate director of international student and scholar services, wrote in an email to The Daily Iowan that, while disappointing, it is not surprising given recent developments.

According to UI admissions office data, international students made up 6.5 percent of total UI student enrollment this semester compared to 7.9 percent for the fall 2019 semester.

Bortscheller said there are two major reasons for the decline. First is the drop in undergraduate students from China, a trend that has been ongoing since the start of the Trump administration. The second big cause is the challenges in obtaining student visas, especially during the ongoing public-health crisis.

To actively combat this declining trend, Bortscheller said his department is working with other offices across campus to maintain support for international student success and is focusing on recruiting efforts in countries that haven’t been targeted in the past.

At this point, the director said it’s hard to say whether the upcoming Biden presidency will help reverse this trend.

“I am hopeful that an administration which has the daughter of a Jamaican man and Indian woman who came to the U.S. to pursue higher-education will make welcoming the best and brightest from around the world a priority,” Bortscheller said, referring to Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.

Bortscheller went on to say that it’s difficult to speculate on the exact cause of the decline, and whether it’s based in more guidelines or rhetoric toward international students that have been exacerbated amid the pandemic.

“I do think it’s helpful to put ourselves in the shoes of a prospective international student.” he said. “Would you want to buy an international plane ticket and spend four or more years away from your family and closest friends to travel to a country where you don’t feel welcome? Thinking about it that way, I find the accomplishments of our international students who have thrived despite rhetoric that might leave them feeling unwelcome even more impressive.”

UI senior Peiqi Chen, who is from China, said the visa process has been grueling for many students.

Chen said she hasn’t had the chance to renew her visa because of embassy closures and her flight home last summer was canceled.

Chen, who is graduating in May, said she must get it renewed in China — a process which is not possible for her to complete in the U.S. But with tight travel regulations and increasing closures, she said trying to make this journey has become increasingly complicated.

A lot of her friends from China are facing similar issues, Chen said, and she thinks the problems extend for most other foreign students. Since she is starting graduate school in the U.S. next fall, Chen said the process is even more unrealistic for her.

The visa complications are one reason people might not be choosing to apply and enroll in American universities.

“Also, the pandemic thing in America is still a little out of control right now,” Chen added.

Chen said she has two cousins that want to study abroad, but they are probably going to choose Australia or Singapore because those two countries are safer and there are fewer COVID-19 cases.

“There is no interaction,” Chen said of pandemic-style classes. “It’s not a real study abroad because you stay at your house.”

She said she thinks it makes more students want to apply to universities where they can have face-to-face contact.

The election and President Trump’s rhetoric are another reason why students might be wary of coming to the U.S., and Chen said she hopes that will change with the new Biden-Harris administration.

“I think the one thing that would be very attractive is to tell international students Iowa City is a really safe place and people are very nice here,” the UI senior said. “It’s a small town, so even though the [COVID-19] rate looks very scary, it’s still a very peaceful place.”

UI International Programs Dean Russell Ganim said it’s even more important to celebrate international students amid increasing declines in enrollment because of the pandemic, unwelcoming rhetoric, and tight visa guidelines.

“We want to highlight their contributions to our campus and show how valuable they are to our community,” Ganim said. “We wouldn’t be the university we are without a strong international presence, and we want to honor not just their presence, but their resilience. Let’s face it, they have faced very tough circumstances these past two years, but they’ve remained committed to the University of Iowa, and as a result, we need to remain committed to them.”