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Coronavirus leaves international college students in limbo over their futures

Over a million students from around the world attended U.S. colleges last year.

During the last academic year, more than a million students from around the world attended U.S. colleges and universities, according to studies, but the coronavirus pandemic has left them and thousands of new prospective students' futures in jeopardy.

Campus officials are still trying to determine how to start the fall semester and whether they will be able to house students. This uncertainty has put in limbo students who looked forward to coming to the U.S. and taking part in its top institutions, according to Erich Dietrich, a clinical professor of higher education and international education at NYU's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

"For undergraduate students, it’s a major stage in their life," he told ABC News. "They know they are going to go [to an American college]. They have their plans lined up. They applied before COVID started and and now they're eager to attend."

Missing out on an education from a top American college would not only affect students' academic and job prospects, but also the futures of colleges who depend on their patronage.

The Institute of International Education (IIE), a 100-year-old nonprofit that helps administer study abroad programs and tracks international student data, said there were 1,095,299 international college students in the U.S. during the 2018-19 academic year, roughly 5.5% of the total college student population of 19,828,000. Of those international students, 269,383 were new to both undergraduate and graduate student programs in this country, according to the IIE.

In a report issued in March, the organization said that several colleges have cut back on their non-U.S. recruiting efforts, particularly in China, where a third of foreign college students come from, and resorted to new options to deal with the students currently enrolled in their programs.

"Some institutions had very robust efforts in place to conduct electronic communication with prospective students, as well as virtual webinars and yield events, or work with local partners and agents," the IIE said in a statement.

The organization did not immediately have any data or information on what colleges are doing for next year. Representatives from two campuses with a large international student body in the 2018-19 academic year -- including Columbia University, with 15,897 international students, and the University of Southern California, with 16,075 -- told ABC News that it hasn't made any decision yet on its foreign student admissions.

John Beckman, a spokesman for NYU, the campus with the most international students (19,605), told ABC News that it's in a "wait and see" position, as the campus is in talks with the federal government and other groups about the state of international travel for students.

"We certainly haven't heard returning international students express any reluctance to return, and we haven't seen any indicators that would go along with that, such as a spike in requests for leaves of absence. We are certainly eager to have them here," Beckman said in a statement.

Dietrich said careful consideration needs to be taken to provide the safest and most efficient learning experience for international students. He noted that the majority of foreign students are studying for postgraduate degrees, and if campuses let students defer their enrollment, it could affect strict academic schedules.

"If a master’s program is spread out as a one- or two-year track, not many programs can be started off-cycle," he noted.

Dietrich said remote learning could help some of the students stay on their academic track, but it comes with a serious drawback. International students seek to study on U.S. campuses because they want to experience American culture and college lifestyle in addition to their programs, according to Dietrich.

"For them to go online, it’s less attractive. They want all of those things that come with studying in the U.S.," he said.

Dietrich said that future U.S. policy could affect future prospective students from other countries. He said more students have opted to go to colleges in Canada and Australia over the last three years, out of concern for President Donald Trump's stricter policies on immigration, such as his ban on people from Muslim countries.

The president's recent executive order that would temporarily ban immigration to the U.S. could sway more of them to stay away, Dietrich warned.

The professor said the loss of international students would be detrimental for some colleges, especially the smaller ones, as many international students come from affluent backgrounds and can pay more of the tuition costs. Campuses that are struggling to make ends meet because of the pandemic would take a hit, he said.

"For them to get through a year or two years will be more difficult. The divide between the wealthy and not-wealthy universities will keep on going," Dietrich said.

In the long term, however, Dietrich said that students will continue to travel to the U.S. for their studies once the pandemic is over, and predicted that more students will be taking up graduate courses to help them navigate the new economy. American campuses won't lose their prestige and academic standings in areas such as science, arts and finance, he said.

"For students who are out there and waiting, I say look to the longer-term goals that you have in your life," he said. "This will pass."

What to know about coronavirus:

  • How it started and how to protect yourself: Coronavirus explained
  • What to do if you have symptoms: Coronavirus symptoms
  • Tracking the spread in the US and Worldwide: Coronavirus map