Higher education landscape

NACAC 2021: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of International Admissions During Covid

A NACAC 2021 panel discussion on the state of international admissions during the Covid-19 pandemic

Heather Lee
September 28, 2021
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10 min read

At the 2021 NACAC Conference, Clay Hensley, International Education Consultant and Cialfo partner, led a panel in a discussion on the state of international admissions during Covid. He was joined by Tiffani Hooper, Co-Director of College Counseling at United Nations International School, Satyajit Dattagupta, Senior Vice President/Dean of Admission, (Enrollment Management, Graduate and Pre College Strategy) at Tulane University, and Mitsuko Leonard, Director, Recruitment at UC Davis.

International students have always been a crucial part of a university’s community, a fact that the pandemic has foregrounded. With changing regulations, travel restrictions and a whole host of other concerns, universities have had to support their international students in brand new ways. 

Decline in numbers

According to the Institute of International Education (IIE), international undergraduate enrollment in the US had already been on the decline for two consecutive years prior to Covid. The country has never seen two straight years of decline, even after 9/11 and the 2008 recession. The undergraduate space has been hit especially badly.

Undergraduate students from China tend to make up one-third of all international students in the US, but this has decreased sharply, as has the number of students from the Middle East. Saudi Arabia has seen a year-on-year decrease of 25% in international student enrollment.

Despite this, there has been some modest growth in international undergraduate enrollment from students in India and Southeast Asia, especially Vietnam.

These trends are definitely concerning. As Hensley notes, ‘Despite these few bright sparks … we’re not out of the woods yet. The good news is that global demand for American-style global higher education has demonstrated amazing resilience in previous pandemics, and this has been consistent over time ... Still, it’ll be a tall order to recover … The impact of our previous president’s last four years [in office] cannot be minimized.’

New adjustments to support the international student community

Internationals are a big part of our family, and knowing that we are their only family in the US is really important; making sure we don’t tell them, “hey go figure this out yourself”, because they have nowhere to go to — who would they go to?

- Satyajit Dattagupta, Senior Vice President/Dean of Admission (Enrollment Management, Graduate and Pre College Strategy) at Tulane University

Having been an international student himself, Dattagupta shared the particular concerns and anxieties international students and their families have. ‘As parents of international students, they are so fearful - will my child be supported, will they get the vaccines, will they be safe, what if they get sick?,’ Dattagupta explains. 

‘And then on top of that, what complicated everything was the narrative coming out of Washington DC — that international students were not as welcome as they were several years ago … When the White House announced that international students who took virtual courses might not be able to maintain their status, that was a huge blow to the credibility that the nation had for international students, because you were isolating a small group of students for political gain. That was very hard for me to explain to our international students.’

For UC Davis, the concerted, committed effort to protect and support their current students helped convey to prospective students that the university could be relied on to keep them safe during the pandemic. 'As a university, they realised that in a small college town, if you can’t keep the town safe, you can’t keep the campus safe, so they did a really good job in making sure that the resources available to our students were available to everyone in our small town too — they made things like the testing, vaccine access, etc. equal opportunity for everyone in that space. By doing that we were able to really protect our students, and of course, by protecting our students, faculty and staff, we were able to protect our reputation, and I think that has really helped with our incoming class which is the largest we’ve had this year,' Leonard explains.

From a counselor’s point of view, Hooper stresses the need for clarity and transparency from universities when it comes to expectations about the admissions process. 

‘I reached out to some of my international colleagues outside of the US … just to get a sense of what are some of the challenges they’re encountering, particularly for F1 visa holders — embassy closures, delays in standardized testing, trouble getting PCR tests, lack of access to vaccines … Many institutions because of economic reasons are [also] experiencing reduced international student financial aid budgets, which impacts students as well in terms of their ability to matriculate,' Hooper tells us. 'These are all things that international students are contending with around the world ... [Universities] being cognizant of that is helpful in terms of helping counselors do their job in supporting students and navigating this process.'

The changing role of testing in the admissions process

'As an education community, we really need to think about the role of testing — do we just abandon all testing, should we all go test-free, or should we break the wheel and start over?'

- Tiffani Hooper, Co-Director of College Counseling at United Nations International School

UC Davis and the other colleges in the University of California went test-free this past year. Leonard explains: ‘We had to change the way we read applications; we had to read what they were saying rather than what they were reporting … Get to know the person before you saw some numbers that made you judge them a bit too harshly. It was really nice to focus on their stories and personal insight questions, which gave us more context that we maybe didn’t have  if we focused on their SAT and ACT exam scores.’

To facilitate this process, a colleague in the undergraduate admissions office helped the team learn how to read applications in a more holistic manner. ‘The way that we read everything was normed; we would all decide this is how we want to address the points we were reading,’ Leonard says. The UC Davis admissions office also had separate teams who focused on the different education systems from around the world that differ from the standard American curriculum, such as the A Levels and GCSEs.

For high schools in general, the shift towards a deemphasis on testing was largely beneficial. Hooper notes that ‘the testing piece in general nationally provided greater access to students, particularly low-income, first-generation students, and that was a huge positive. We were so happy to see that the UCs were testing free … because students weren’t feeling like they were playing Russian roulette of “do I drive three hours and try to get a test” or “do I register for every test date possible” in the hopes that every test date won’t be cancelled. In the early part of the pandemic, that was a particularly tenuous part of the terrain to navigate.'

Counselors in particular appreciated this shift to being test-free or test-flexible. ‘With all of the schools that were testing flexible, the conversation shifted more to fit and academic profile, which as counselors we are more excited to have a conversation along those lines, so  that was a really exciting aspect of our work,’ Hooper remarks.

The question about what role testing will take on after these shifts in the admissions process is a question that the higher education community will need to address. Hooper sums it up: 'As an education community, we really need to think about the role of testing — do we just abandon all testing, should we all go test-free, or should we break the wheel and start over?'

Increasing access and diversity

‘How do you recruit international students in a world where things are already complicated, we have a pandemic, and the narrative is you’re perhaps not as welcome here as you were four, five years ago?’

- Satyajit Dattagupta, Senior Vice President/Dean of Admission (Enrollment Management, Graduate and Pre College Strategy) at Tulane University

UC Davis has seen an increase in students from certain countries, which Leonard attributes to the institution's consistent efforts in engaging students from these countries throughout the pandemic year. 'We were able to stay up late and get up super early and do a lot of webinars for counselors who really needed a coffee chat, about what it’s really like, can they trust the situation in the US, politically and pandemically. Having that outreach set things up was really instrumental in making sure our populations were more diverse this year,' Leonard tells us.

With the increased attention paid to issues of racial discrimination, campuses across the United States are going the extra mile to support both current and prospective students. UC Davis has an internship program involving 9-10 international students who share their experiences involving discrimination and the resources available to support and help students during these challenging situations. Leonard tells us that ‘their genuine voice … and having those honest conversations with prospective students and their families tends to be very well-received, versus, “that never happens because we’re an anti-racist campus”. Acknowledging that it could and it would, but there are resources has been a much better approach for us.’

In conclusion

With all the complexities and upheavals students have experienced during the pandemic, from learning loss to disrupted schedules and just the fatigue caused by circumstances, it's crucial that students and counselors articulate these difficulties in their applications. Leonard advises: 'Your experience of the pandemic will be very different from other students'. As much as we're all in the same boat, we're not — some of us are in yachts, and some of us are on rafts ... Since we're not going to ask, you do have to raise your hand [and speak up] ... Tell us that story, because without that story, all we do is look at the grades.'

Hooper echoed this, highlighting that 'Context is key. Use that Covid statement and additional information section in the Common App to provide whatever context is helpful so that the admission officers have that lens through which to read the application. For schools that have school profiles, providing that context for your students so we understand the circumstances that are impacting everyone in terms of virtual learning and what have you ... Keep in mind that they have a limited time to read that information, so more isn’t more unless it’s helpful. Be succinct and crisp with the conveying of information, but provide as much context as possible.'

This panel discussion was held at the 2021 NACAC National Conference in Seattle, WA.

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