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After Covid-19 Recovery, Harvard College Sees Rise in International Enrollment for Third Straight Year

By Alex Chou and Ayumi Nagatomi

Harvard College saw an increase in enrolled international students for the third year in a row, with demographic data from the enrolled Class of 2027 indicating a 32 percent increase in the share of international students compared to the Class of 2024.

According to yield data released by Harvard, the proportion of international students committed to the class each year has risen steadily from 11.8 percent for the Class of 2024 to 15.6 percent for the Class of 2027.

The number of countries represented among students admitted to the College has similarly risen each year, from 92 in the Class of 2024 to 102 in the Class of 2027.

The increase follows a nationwide trend among colleges of increased international student enrollment in the wake of the pandemic. The percentage of international students enrolled in Harvard’s current freshman class beat out some, but not all, peers within the Ivy League.

At Princeton, roughly 13.5 percent of the enrolled Class of 2027 is international, compared to about 12 percent at Yale and Brown. At 17 and 16 percent, respectively, Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania had slightly larger shares of international student enrollment than Harvard for the Class of 2027. Dartmouth and Cornell have not released this data for their freshman classes.

The increase in enrollment of international students seen at Harvard is also reflected in the data from other Ivy League universities. According to Michael T. Nietzel, a president emeritus of Missouri State University, a significant component of the increase is recovery from the pandemic.

“In general, we have seen a bounce back — a kind of a low point in international enrollment that was experienced during the pandemic,” Nietzel said.

According to Yale University’s Office of International Students and Scholars, there was a slight dip in enrollment during the 2020 school year, but post-pandemic, that number has recovered. In the 2022-23 school year, international students accounted for 11 percent of overall enrollment at Yale College.

Princeton also saw a similar pattern, with a small drop in international enrollment during the pandemic, and a recovery shortly afterward. International students made up 12 percent of Princeton’s undergraduate population in the 2022-23 school year.

The pandemic does not tell the whole story of the increase, however — Harvard’s Class of 2027 reflects a higher proportion of international student enrollment than the Class of 2023, the last class admitted before the pandemic, by roughly 2.5 percentage points.

Nietzel said colleges may view international admissions as a way to ensure a diverse student body — in particular, with regard to the Supreme Court’s decision striking down affirmative action in higher education. Nietzel said universities hoping to maintain or grow a diverse student body “will look to international students as one way” to do so.

According to Nietzel, for most institutions, the effect of the ruling on international admissions will likely be minimal.

“Instead, what you will find is, Harvard and Yale — the Ivy League schools, your highly selective schools — are going to be doing more outreach to minority communities to try to attract more applicants and achieve their racial diversity goals,” Nietzel added.

Despite recent trends of increasing enrollment, cost remains one of the primary barriers for international students studying in the United States.

According to Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Emiliana Vegas, higher education in the U.S. is “one of the most expensive in the world” even when compared to other developed economies like the U.K. and countries in Europe.

“Just going to the States in general — whether it’s to Harvard or any school in general — it is very cost-prohibitive, so it’s not something that most students will think about,” said Serena P. Fan, the president of the Harvard Club of Hong Kong.

Harvard spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain declined to comment on the admissions policies for international enrollment at Harvard College.

Another barrier for international enrollment can be U.S. immigration policy. Vegas said that obtaining a visa to study in the U.S. “has become more and more difficult.”

Nietzel noted that the Trump administration — even prior to the pandemic — created “not a very hospitable environment from a federal point of view for immigration and for students coming here to study.”

He attributed the recent increase in international student enrollment to “a safer environment for international students” than from 2016 to 2020.

Despite these challenges, Vegas said there remain strong incentives for developing countries to send their students to study abroad to grow “their human capital.”

“It’s a dual role where you want to create the conditions for students — both to get a great education, but also for them to be able to use that great education in a labor market that is growing and will pay back the economic return to education that they expect from the investment,” Vegas said.

Nietzel said he anticipates that international enrollment will continue to rise as the number of American high school seniors declines in the coming years.

“There is an attempt to build other kinds of markets for them and international students certainly constitute one of those markets,” Nietzel added.

Moving forward, Vegas said she hopes Harvard will continue to maintain and even expand on its mission of global impact.

“Particularly when you’re such a historically excellent institution that is recognized worldwide, that you have a responsibility to chart the path to what it means to make a difference globally and help other regions develop,” Vegas said.

“I think Harvard is in that direction — doing obviously all it can — but I think hopefully it will do even more in the years to come,” she added.

—Staff writer Alex Chou can be reached at alex.chou@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Ayumi Nagatomi can be reached at ayumi.nagatomi@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @ayumi_nagatomi.

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