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Supporting International Students amid the Pandemic

Insights into concerns about studying in the United States during COVID-19

October 1, 2020

Over the last couple of years, the 1.1 million international students studying in the United States have been vital contributors to both higher education and the wider US economy. In 2015, international students accounted for $9 billion in tuition and fees revenue (28 percent of the national total), and in 2018, they contributed $45 billion to the national economy while supporting 450,000 jobs.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has put their status—and the benefits they provide their institutions and communities—in jeopardy. Facing uncertain immigration policies, international college student enrollment has declined 11 percent in the fall semester, more than any other student demographic group.

This month, the Global Alliance of International Student Advancement (GAISA) was launched as a private foundation committed to research and advocacy for the betterment of the international student community in higher education. In a new survey GAISA conducted in September with AAC&U, international and domestic students provided insights into their concerns studying in the United States during a global pandemic and the increased support they would like from their institutions.

Most International Students Feel They Are Well Supported

  • More than half (60 percent) of international students said their institution was “providing enough support and resources to enable their success.”
  • But most students (78 percent) still made at least one suggestion for how their institution could improve, advocating for resources for mental health, counseling, housing, nutrition, and healthcare; support for integrating students in campus life; academic advising and support; and help navigating visa processes (see figure 1).

Figure 1. How International Students Say Their Institutions Can Improve Support


International Students Struggle to Identify Norms of Academic Honesty

  • According to the report, “questions around academic integrity are a grey area for many students but can be especially complex for international students.” This uncertainty may have been exacerbated by the pandemic, as many students are studying in new online contexts.
  • Nearly one in five (19 percent) international students said their institution could do a better job providing academic advising and support from faculty.
  • While the majority (87 percent) of international students thought they understood what their college or university counts as academic dishonesty, many struggled to accurately identify whether activities are considered dishonest (see figure 2).
  • More than half of domestic students (56 percent) said that cheating was more prevalent during the pandemic, and 13 percent believed cheating was acceptable in online formats. “If you think I’m about to pay full tuition just to get sent homework assignments through my email and not hit up Google like it’s my ex, you got the wrong one today,” one such student wrote.

Figure 2.


Many International Students Are Concerned about Health amid the Pandemic

  • More than a fifth of international students (21 percent) said their institution could better support them by developing more resources for mental health, counseling, housing, nutrition, and healthcare.
  • In a separate study by the Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) Consortium, many undergraduate international students said that their primary concerns were “maintaining good health” in the United States (52 percent) or “understanding US medical insurance and obtaining health services” (35 percent).

International Students also Worry about Finances and Immigration Policies

  • In that same SERU study, 36 percent of undergraduate international students said that getting enough financial support was their primary concern, and 44 percent said their primary concern was managing immigration and visa issues.
  • Fewer international students cited these same concerns in the GAISA survey, but one-third (33 percent) said their “biggest challenge to success” was tuition, housing, and other costs, while 16 percent said their biggest challenge was immigration policies.

International Students’ Feelings of Belonging and Equality Are among Their Biggest Challenges

  • A fifth of students (21 percent) said that their campus could support them better by having a bigger focus on integrating students in campus life.
  • GAISA reported that ten out of twelve international students “internalized inequality” and tended to blame some aspect of themselves, believing that they had imperfect English and couldn’t express themselves well enough, weren’t working hard enough “to prove to biased instructors or domestic peers that they are capable of doing group work or homework,” looked different or had different clothes from other students, or were viewed as “foreigners” or “outsiders.”
  • Most domestic students (70 percent) said that their institutions advertised a global, diverse student population in their admissions material, and more than half (57 percent) said that international students had been a “valuable or meaningful part of their collegiate experience.”
  • But a similar percentage (52 percent) also said they “don’t have any international student friends.”

International Students Study Abroad to Improve Work Opportunities, but Fewer Focus on Finding a Job in the United States

  • According to a separate study, most international students (81 percent) said “that they chose to study abroad to improve career opportunities,” and many (43 percent) said they studied abroad to “pursue a specific career.”
  • The GAISA report found that a sizeable number of international students (14 percent) wanted more career support from their institution, saying that “career services, job preparation, and access to on-campus jobs are the biggest challenges to their success.”

Figures in this article are included by permission of GAISA/CSG from their October 2020 International Student Report.