UI international student enrollment continues to decline

UI Dean and Associate Provost of International Programs Russell Ganim cites COVID-19, school safety in the U.S., and competition between institutions as the cause.


Darren Chen

Iowa graduate Chinese student Muyun Lin takes a short water break between his workout at the Campus Recreation and Wellness Center in Iowa City on Tuesday, November 22, 2022.

Emily Nyberg, News Reporter

  • There were 2,176 total international students in 2021.
  • There were 2,509 total international students in 2020.
  • There were 3,163 total international students in 2019.
  • There were 3,665 total international students in 2018.
  • There were 4,011 total international students in 2017.

The number of undergraduate international students also declined, while the number of graduate and professional-level students stayed consistent over the past five years.

Russell Ganim, UI associate provost and dean of International Programs, said the loss of Chinese international students, who make up 35 percent of UI international students, accelerated the student decline because of COVID-19.

In 2021, 777 students from China were enrolled at the UI,  followed by India and South Korea with 347 and 172 students, respectively.

He said the UI was overly dependent on China for its international student population.

China also built higher education infrastructure in recent years, Ganim said, which reduced the need for outsourced education.

Muyun Lin, a UI student from China, completed his undergraduate degree in 2021 and is now pursuing a graduate degree in exercise physiology.

Lin said he studied abroad because he wanted to see the world, and he chose the UI because of the program’s quality and price.

While some international students chose to return home, Lin stayed at the UI during the pandemic. He said moving away from family was the most challenging part of his experience.

“During COVID-19, some of my friends and my peers just went back to China,” he said. “I cannot go back easily. I had to quarantine. I’ve lived here for a long time without going home, without my parents, my friends, my family.”

The decrease in international student enrollment is not only happening at the UI. Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa reported the same trend.

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ISU reported 2,443 total international students in 2022 compared to 3,691 in 2018, according to data released this fall.

International student enrollment at UNI fell from 480 in fall 2018 to 236 in fall 2021, according to enrollment reports from the state Board of Regents.

Kristi Marchesani, UNI director of international recruitment and admissions, said COVID-19 played a significant role in the university’s decline.

“There are still major delays for students seeking visa appointments at the U.S. embassies and consulates,” Marchesani said. “There continue to be concerns about issues related to health and safety in the U.S. that lead to some students staying home for their education or seeing opportunities in other countries.”

Global recruitment

Now, the UI is working to bring in more students from other countries and regions.

Ganim said he recently visited the United Arab Emirates and Qatar and will soon visit Vietnam, Thailand, India, and Sub-Saharan Africa to recruit new students.

“We try to make connections virtually first, and then we follow up with in-person visits if we can,” he said. “We also have a student ambassador program here, so both domestic and international students here can share their experience with applicants abroad.”

Along with COVID-19 contributing to the decline in international students, safety concerns and gun violence also influenced the decrease, Ganim said.

“When I was in the Middle East last month, this topic came up repeatedly,” he said. “You are always going to be worried about safety and security. When you see reports of shootings and violence, it is hard to ignore it.”

Ganim added that international students are looking for schools with more prestige.

“We always market ourselves as a school that is in the top two percent of institutions worldwide, but I think for some international students, they only want schools that are in the top 100 in the world,” he said. “Iowa is close, but we are not at the level they are seeking.”

Ganim said the UI’s additional international recruiting efforts are working to rebuild the international student population and create a more diverse student body.

“Our goal is to make this campus look more like the world,” he said. “We owe it to ourselves as a globally engaged institution to interact as much as possible with people from all parts of the world. We all benefit greatly from that experience.”