United States: English enrollment remained well below pre-pandemic levels in 2021 – ICEF Monitor


Short on time ? Here are the highlights:

  • US Intensive English Program (IEP) Sector Eyes Recovery After Another Challenging Year in 2021
  • Total study weeks decreased 9.1% year over year
  • Declining enrollment and student weeks from Asia prompt U.S. IEPs to ramp up recruiting from Latin America

The latest annual survey data from the Institute of International Education (IIE) indicates that there were 5.3% more international students in US Intensive English Programs (IEPs) in 2021 compared to 2020 However, study weeks were down a further 9.1% after falling 51% in 2020. The data was released as part of the IIE’s Open Doors report and is based on a survey of over of 600 IEPs—at institutions of higher education as well as independent centers—across the United States.

In 2020, fewer IEPs responded to the IIE survey and the above comparisons of trends from 2020 to 2021 are therefore not “apples to apples”. The IIE notes that if the analysis is limited to IEPs that responded to the survey in 2020 and 2021, international student enrollment in U.S. English-language programs fell -29% and student weeks -31%.

A total of 39,352 international students studied at U.S. IEPs for a total of 467,368 student-weeks in calendar year 2021.

Enrollment and student weeks in American IEPs, 2003-2021. Source: IIE

More than three-quarters (78%) of IEPs returned to in-person instruction in 2021 as COVID-related social distancing measures and travel restrictions eased in the United States last year. Another 14% of students were enrolled in hybrid programs and 8% learned exclusively online.

Many of the COVID-related adjustments and investments by IBOs have become less pronounced in 2021. For example, IBOs have reduced their virtual recruitment, investments in technology, and program redesign/restructuring activities. Staff reductions have become less common, as have program closures.

Talk with ICEF MonitorIIE research specialist Julie Baer said a common theme among IEP providers in 2021 was prioritizing the health and well-being of international students, who were well course still facing the many challenges and disruptions of the pandemic:

“During the pandemic, we have seen how IEPs in the United States have responded with agility to changing circumstances amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Throughout calendar year 2021, the proportion of IEPs reporting that the predominant study mode of their program was in-person steadily increased, and by the end of 2021, more than three-quarters (78%) of IEPs Americans said the in-person study mode was the primary mode of study.

Huge source country realignment

The representation of regions and countries of origin has changed significantly in the US IEPS in 2021. Europe and Latin America have significantly increased their shares while Asia has faded as a source region compared to what it was before. Total enrollments from countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, for example, increased by 50.8% while total enrollments in Asia fell by 37.7% between 2020 and 2021.

China remains the top source country for IEPs in the United States, but Chinese enrollments fell 59% in 2021 (3,794). Japan moved to second place, sending around 4,298 students (-18.7% since 2020). France climbed to third place (2,639) by sending 10 times more students than in 2020. Saudi Arabia – which was in second place in 2020, sent 61.8% fewer students ( 2,627) and fell to fourth place. Mexico ranked in the top five for the first time sending 186.8% more students in 2021 than in 2020.

Other notable developments in the top 10 source markets are that Germany sent 8 times more students in 2021 than in 2020, Italy sent 7 times more students, Switzerland sent nearly 6 times more students and Italy sent almost 5 times more students. The number of South Korean students in IEPs fell 32.7% in 2021.

Top international source markets for U.S. IEPs, 2021. Source: IIE

The following chart illustrates how the top 10 source markets have changed in the space of a year.

Top 10 sending markets for US IEPs 2020 and 2021. Source: IIE

Students from Asia, the Middle East, and Africa spend more weeks in IEP programs than European or Latin American students. This explains why the overall growth in student numbers (driven by Europe, Latin America and other regions) has not led to growth in student weeks – the decline in enrollment from Asia led to a decrease in the total number of student weeks.

Average number of student weeks booked at U.S. IEPs by global region, 2021. Source: IIE

The Importance of IEPs for American Colleges and Universities

IIE data shows that 32% of IEP international students intend to continue their programs in English to continue their studies in the United States. IEPs represent a major recruiting channel in U.S. higher education, and the recovery of this sector would impact the recovery of the higher education sector.

Students are much more likely to say they will continue their education if they study in higher education-affiliated IEP programs. These programs represent 90% of IEPs participating in the IIE 2021 survey. More than half (58%) of students enrolled in HEI-affiliated English-language programs intend to continue their studies in the United States 6% of those enrolled in independent IEPs. With that in mind, it’s interesting to look at the differences between the top sending regions for the two IEP categories, as in the figure below.

Top source markets for HEI-affiliated and non-affiliated IBOs in 2021. Source: IIE

Looking at the map above, it is evident that if the number of Asian students in higher education-affiliated IEPs continues to decline, there will be profound implications for American colleges and universities, which remain heavily dependent on Asian inscriptions. This is especially true given that another route to higher education for international students in the United States – the schools – is also accepting fewer Asian students. Last year, according to the SEVIS visa count, the share of Chinese students in the total international student population in US K-12 schools rose from 44% to 37%. South Korea and Vietnam’s proportions also fell, while Canada and Mexico sent more students to K-12 schools.

Trends in the IEP and K-12 sectors suggest that going forward — unless regional shifts in enrollment are temporary — U.S. educators across all sectors will need to step up their recruitment of Latino, African and Europeans if they want to maintain their total number of international students. The following chart is the one compiled by the PEW Research Foundation and it illustrates how well Asian students are represented in the American education system.

About a third of all international students in the United States in 2020/21 came from China. Source: Pew Research Center

Connecting with agents in Latin America

Development initiatives in other regions are clearly underway. For example, EnglishUSA announced a Strategic Affiliate Program that involves “associations of agents who work with EnglishUSA to promote the United States as a premier English language destination.” In 2021/22, the first pilot of Strategic Affiliates was with “four agent associations in Latin America (Brazil, Mexico, Colombia and Argentina)”.

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