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Credit: Tyler Kliem

Penn received over 11,000 international applications for the Class of 2025 — a record 50% increase from last year — even as international student enrollment in United States colleges saw a drastic decrease this year. 

The University saw an increase in international applicants in both its early and regular decision rounds, Interim Dean of Admissions John McLaughlin said. Thirteen percent of admitted ED students for the class of 2025 are international, and they hail from 56 countries.

McLaughlin said that several factors may have contributed to this unprecedented increase, namely Penn’s test-optional policy as well as the opportunities the University has created for students to access virtual programming during the pandemic.These policies have a greater effect on international students than they do on domestic students, he explained, because of the current lack of availability of testing abroad and the travel restrictions on those entering the U.S.

These same factors contributed to a huge spike in overall applications for the class of 2025, which received an all-time high of 56,000 applications.

The University's record-breaking increase in international applications, however, stands in stark contrast to recent trends regarding international students studying in U.S. universities. According to a survey of more than 700 colleges, the total number of international students studying at U.S. universities, whether from within the country or from abroad, decreased by 16% in fall 2020. There was also a 43% drop in enrollment for new international students.

The survey found that factors including travel restrictions, safety considerations, and virtual learning impacted international students' decisions to study in the country in fall 2020. On the other hand, total international enrollment in the U.K., Australia, and Canada has spiked during the same time period. 

Although a large part of the drop in total international student enrollment during 2020 has been attributed to students deferring their studies during the pandemic, enrollment has been steadily declining since 2016. Total international student enrollment in the U.S. had similarly dropped by 19% in 2019.

College and Wharton junior and President of the Association of International Students Hugo Leo, who is from Indonesia, said that despite Penn's high international application rates for the incoming class, he does not think the University will see a comparable surge in enrollment.  

“I think that the uncertainty created by the pandemic motivated students to apply to more universities," Leo said. “AIS’s focus this year will be less directed towards recruiting new applicants and more towards persuading accepted international applicants to enroll.” 

He nevertheless agreed that Penn’s test-optional policy played an additional role in increasing international student applications. 

In March of 2020, the University announced it would no longer require SAT and ACT tests for applicants in the 2020-2021 admissions cycle. This decision was reached after the College Board and ACT testing agencies canceled and delayed multiple test dates amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It is often harder for international students to take the required tests because depending on where you live, they might not be available very often,” Leo said, adding that he believes the test-optional policy will increase the number of applicants from unrepresented backgrounds, such as those who live in rural areas and do not attend international schools.

Leo added that the increase in applications may be a result of Penn's positive reputation among international applicants.

Director of International Scholar and Student Services Rudie Altamirano said he agreed that the increase in applications from international students can be attributed to Penn’s reputation of collegiality towards international students. 

“International students need to go through too many hurdles: bureaucracy, homeland security policies, presidential proclamations, visa restrictions, et cetera," he said. “That is why U.S. universities need to put in extra effort in order to make international applicants feel welcome, and it is what Penn is doing."

Penn is the only university in the Ivy League whose ISSS department is as focused on integration as it is on immigration, Altamirano believes. 

"We see international students as individuals, not just as demographics, and I think this has really paid off,” Altamirano said. He believes it is crucial for American universities to continue attracting international applicants, citing a Duke University study which found that domestic students who engaged with international students had an increased sense of self-confidence, leadership, and quantitative skills.

“International students bring a richness to the classroom that Penn cannot get in any other way,” Altamirano said.