Students eager for US campus life

Overseas-education | BLOOMBERG 20 Jul 2021

Students from around the world are eager to study at US colleges in the upcoming autumn semester after the Covid-19 pandemic confined many of them to their home countries and left some attendingvirtual classes in the wee hours of the morning.

Now,getting to campus is the hard part.

In China, which accounts for a third of the roughly one million foreign students that flock to the United States in a typical academic year, the decline in available flights to American cities has been so severe that some students and their parents have resorted to lining up charter planes.

Others, including from India,are caught up in visa purgatory because the State Department reduced personnel at embassies and consulates due to the pandemic. And that's to say nothing of fast-changing Covid-19 vaccine guidelines.

It all adds up to a tangle of challenges that has created uncertainty for students and a headache for schools that are looking to blunt last year's sharp drop in international enrollment and the attending financial hit.

Ohio State University, which drew almost 6,600 international students to its Columbus campus in autumn 2019,has already begun to see requests to defer for the term that begins August 24, said Carina Hansen, who directs the International Students and Scholars program.

International students bringa worldly perspective to campuses and, crucially, often pay full tuition. Widespread deferrals would be a blow to colleges and universities, which dealt with a 16 percent decline in international student enrollment in this year's spring termfrom the previous year because of the pandemic.

"If they defer for the semester, there's always the concern that you'll lose them for good," said Don Heller, vice president of operations at the University of San Francisco who studies higher education finance. "If it's easier for them to get into Canada, they might decide to go to a university in Canada instead, or stay in their home country."

Anticipating potential problems with travel and other factors, Northeastern Universityin Boston held more than 200 virtual support sessions to answer questions about vaccines, visas and requests for travel support letters, said Renata Nyul, a spokeswoman.

Chinese students are finding that the airline industry's fitful recovery from the pandemic is making the trip to the United States trickier to plan, with a 96 percent decline in seats from two years ago. In July, there are 61 flights, or 20,254 seats, going from China tothe United States, according to Cirium, an aviation data company. That is far lower than the 1,626 flights, or 479,519, seats,making that voyage in July 2019.

Flights from China may come with an eye-popping price tag, too. The average cost of a round-tripticket from China to the United States was US$2,260 (HK$17,630) in the first two quarters of 2021, according to travel-management company TripActions - a big jump from the US$1,247 average fare seen in the same period in2019.

Alicia Zhang, 20, took a gamble by buying a ticket for a direct flight in late June from her hometown, Shanghai, to New York, where she's a risingjunior studying economics at New York University.

The price-about US$4,000 for a one-way ticket-was roughly five times greater than what she had paid in pre-pandemic times. It didn't pay off: the China Eastern Airlines flight was canceled less than a month later, with a refund.

She then purchased a seat on another flight, with a layover in Hong Kong, for about US$4,500.She said many students fear that the course of the pandemic this summer could prompt airlines to reconsider their schedules, potentially leading to cancellations or changes.

"The biggest problem will be the ticket," she said. "Most of my friends will buy several, wait for which ticket is not canceled, and just go on that flight."

After trading stories of pricey airfares or worries about flight cancellationsin WeChat groups organized by the Chinese Students and Scholars Association,some students and their parents lined up charter flights with Cathay Pacific, including two flights to New York in August.

"We don't have many choices," said Samantha Duan, 18, an incoming NYU student from Chengdu who is traveling to the United States for the first time on one of the charter flights. This optionoffers some certainty, a moreattractive price and the fun of traveling with other students.

For those that don't opt for charter flights, the ever-changingcircumstances of the pandemic make it hardto game out when fares might be most affordable.

"An uptick in ticket prices should indeed be expected given airlines will be looking to tap the surge in demand from students over the short August/September window," saidChris Muckensturm, a Bloomberg Intelligence analyst who studies passenger transportation in theAsia Pacificregion.

"Yet more capacity deployed on those routes could mitigate price increases."

For some students, the primary difficulty isn'tthe flight, but obtaining a visa.

According to a State Department website that offers guidance on appointment wait times, the situation varies widely across the globe.

For those looking to obtain student and exchange visas, estimatesrangefrom three calendar days in Beijing and 36 days in Seoul to emergency appointments only in Shanghai, Mumbai and London.

The State Department says it is prioritizing visa applications for certain types of travelers, including students and exchange visitors.

Sara Dahiya, 17, an incoming freshman at Harvard University from Panipat, India, is among the students awaiting her visa.

She expects to depart for the United States in autumn alongside her twin brother, Anirudh, who will begin at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The siblings bought their plane tickets in mid-June.

"It definitely was a risk to book my flight before getting a visa but I'm glad I took it," she said.

"The process of scheduling a visa appointment, as it is, was extremely distressing, and finding and paying twice the amount for a flight right now would've only added to the troubles."

Colleges have ample incentive to move away from remote learning in autumn. Beyondthe potential educational rewards of in-person schooling, there are financial benefits to these institutions, because payments for living in dormitory housing and eating in dining halls help cushion their bottom lines.

International students at US colleges and universities contributed US$38.7 billion to the nation'seconomy and supported 415,996 jobs during the 2019-2020 academic year, according to an analysis by Nafsa: Association of International Educators.

Last year, when campuses shut down in March, many students were stranded far from home. If they did eventually depart the United States, they might have ended up taking classes onlineat odd hours, thanks to time-zone differences.

"International students probably took the hardest hit in the pandemic," said Wendy Wolford, vice provost for international affairs and a professor of global development at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

Paulash Chatterjee, a rising senior at the University of Illinois-Chicago, has attended school from his home in Jaipur, India, since last August, located 12,000 kilometers away from campus in a time zone that is 10.5 hours ahead.

He plans to resume in-person learning in autumn, but is concerned about the cost of airfareand the possibility that his flight might end up canceled.

He also must considerCovid-19 vaccine recommendations.His first dose of the Indian vaccine Covishield was in June, but evolving government advice now suggests that a later administrationof his second vaccine dose -up to 16 weeks after the first -would offer better protection. That's long after Chatterjee is set to be in the United States.

"I've been checking flights every day," said the 21-year-old, who is studying biology. "Of course I want to go back to Chicago, but at the same time, I don't want to risk my life."

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