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Sarvat Maharramli: A Look at When International Students Will Return to the U.S.

The COVID-19 pandemic is set to reduce the enrollment of international students at U.S. universities over the course of the next few years. This will have a significant financial impact on certain universities, residence halls and off-campus properties that were popular among international students. 

With campuses looking to reopen this fall, both higher education institutions and student housing owners and operators should demonstrate adaptability, flexibility and creativity in creating a conducive environment for international students to return soon.  

Higher Education — The Nation’s Fifth Largest Service Export 

U.S. higher education institutions and student housing companies have been enjoying steady revenue growth from international students in the last decade. The U.S. international higher education industry includes everything from two-week English language courses to full degrees from some of the most prestigious universities in the country. According to the Institute of International Education, the number of international students at universities hit a record high of 1,095,000 in 2018 — 5.5 percent of the total student population in the U.S. International students studying at U.S. colleges and universities contributed $44 billion to the U.S. economy in 2018 with higher education being the 5th service export of the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Global Implications 

There are two post-pandemic trends that will negatively impact the number of students who come to the U.S. to pursue a higher education — financial struggles and shifting immigration policy. First and foremost, due to financial difficulties, people will be less likely to send their children to study overseas. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) expects the global economy to contract by 3 percent in 2020. Secondly, the shifting U.S immigration policy and current de-globalization/localization trends will make it more difficult for students to study abroad and build a long-term career path in the U.S. With geopolitical situations also influencing decisions to study abroad, the ongoing tensions between the U.S and China (one third of international students in the U.S are Chinese) are discouraging to many ambitious and intrepid international students.

The Impact of University Response

The response by universities and colleges to the COVID-19 pandemic will have a significant impact on the number of international students choosing to study in the U.S. The pandemic will also impact the housing choices and decisions of many students who may or may not be aware of the long-reaching effects that this pandemic will have on their academic aspirations. 

The methods used by universities and residence halls to handle the campus shutdown this spring and the subsequent switch to online education has caused immense distress and confusion among international students. Many international students — especially those with strict budgets and limited social networks — were left helpless when they received short notices to leave campus and find alternative housing for themselves.

From a professional and personal perspective, I could not imagine the frustration and helplessness that these students must be feeling. I received a call from a partner company requesting that we accommodate 40 international students who received two to three days notice for moving out of their residence halls. Furthermore, once the semester was over, many international students experienced difficulties moving back to their home countries due to the safety precautions limiting international air travel and were likely to have remained in the U.S until precautions were lessened or lifted. 

Uncertainty Regarding the Fall Semester

Uncertainty about the pandemic and late decisions from universities about the upcoming fall semester creates obstacles for current/incoming international students looking to obtain visas. It also impacts prospective students who are unable to register for GRE, SAT and TOEFL exams in time to make a decision about school and travel. With the U.S. embassies closed indefinitely and long visa delays, universities are not expecting international students to come earlier than October or November of this year. 

Online Education

With online education becoming ingrained and incorporated into the curriculum of many universities, international students will have the opportunity to reduce their actual time spent in the U.S. and on campuses. International students will still want to come to the U.S. for the lifestyle and college experience, but one semester in the U.S. and one semester back at home or a first year of schooling in the U.S. and the rest back at home will likely become more preferable over a long-term, four-year duration. Hopefully, the visa and immigration policies will be changed accordingly to meet this trend. Canada recently made a major change in its study and work ruling that will allow students to complete their first semester online while abroad and still remain eligible for a Post-Graduation Work Permit after moving to Canada. 

New Trends in Student Accomodation

The demand for student housing will also change in the post-pandemic world. Although this is not specific to international students, three trends are likely to dominate the student housing industry in the coming years:

  • The need for more privacy. Following the COVID-19 pandemic, demand for off-campus housing and furnished student apartments in communities where individuals share a unit with a limited number of other students will increase for both local and international students. In Kapi, we have seen a spike in the demand for private rooms and private one-bedroom apartments by international students over the last four weeks. I believe this demand will continue to rise for a year or two and will also increase the cost of living for international students. 
  • More versatile and adaptive building. The trend for micro-studios and mixed-used apartment communities will  increase. To avoid the ghost town student housing communities we witnessed during the spring, it is important to have more mixed-used or adaptive building models where the prpoerty can be used as a multifamily apartment community and/or turned into classrooms.  
  • Greater flexibility in lease term. Traditional nine- to 12-month leases will need to be reevaluated with emerging online education and hybrid models that might not require students to be on-campus for more than nine to 10 months of the year. Student housing operators will need to do more short-term/flexible leases for students coming to stay on or close to campus for less than a year.

The U.S. still has the most competitive higher education system in the world; thus, the number of international students will grow in the long run. In the short-term, both universities and student housing owners and operators will need to adapt to the new realities of online education. In doing so, we will be better prepared in dealing with the needs of students and the long-term social impact of a global pandemic crisis. 

— Sarvat Maharramli is the president and co-owner of Kapi Residences, a provider of furnished off-campus student apartments throughout California. 

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