UCSD’s foreign enrollment drops, but the campus is optimistic about the future

Despite a decline in the number of foreign students, UC San Diego's overall enrollment increased in fall 2020.

The university looks to its huge new village project to accommodate long-term growth.


For the first time in nearly 20 years, UC San Diego has experienced a big drop in foreign students, who pay twice as much in tuition as California residents, helping to balance the university’s budget.

Newly released figures show UCSD had 8,451 foreign students last fall, down nearly 400 from the previous year.

Campus officials described the decline as a temporary downdraft caused by coronavirus-related travel and visa restrictions and noted that UCSD’s overall enrollment rose to a record 39,576 students in fall 2020.

The school also is preparing for immense post-pandemic growth. It is working on a $565 million village, the Theatre District Living and Learning Neighborhood, that is intended to house 2,000 students, many of them in a 21-story tower that will be among the tallest college residential halls in the western United States.

Construction crews have begun work on UC San Diego’s Theatre District Living and Learning Neighborhood, despite an ongoing lawsuit opposing the project.

Jan. 6, 2021

But these are nerve-wracking times in higher education, and not just because of the coronavirus.

Due to changing demographics, many colleges and universities — especially small, private, liberal arts schools — have struggled to boost or maintain enrollment as the number of high school graduates nationwide has declined.

UCSD, a large public research school, hasn’t had that problem. That’s partly due to its elite status, but it also stems from the university’s decision to heavily recruit high-tuition international students who could help the campus offset deep cuts in state funding.

In 2008, UCSD had 27,520 students, 1,621 (or 6 percent) of whom came from other countries.

In 2019, UCSD had 38,736 students, 8,842 (or 23 percent) of them from other countries.

In 2020, foreign enrollment slipped to 8,451, or 21 percent.

The change isn’t entirely surprising; foreign students have been showing less interest in the United States in recent years due to political and economic tension between the U.S. and China.

But the pandemic complicated matters.

“It became harder for students to get the visa they needed to come to the U.S. and study,” said Gaurav Khanna, an economics professor at UCSD.

He noted that the U.S. issued only 37,680 student visas to foreigners from March to September last year. The government usually grants about 290,000 during that period.

“I think that this is an anomaly and that the number of visas will go back up next year,” Khanna said. “But it will grow at a slower rate.

“Other countries — like Australia, Canada and those in the U.K. — are competing more for the students who’ve been going to the U.S. And China is investing more in its own universities to make them more attractive.”

Pierre Ouillet, UCSD’s chief financial officer, also sees the drop in UCSD’s foreign enrollment as a passing thing.

“Most of these were master’s students who decided to [defer] for one year,” Ouillet said.

His bigger concern is ensuring that there’s enough housing to serve a campus whose enrollment could hit 42,500 within three years.

Things were looking good early last summer. UCSD had boosted its housing capacity to roughly 17,500. And 2,000 more beds were scheduled to come online in the fall when the university opened a massive new village known as the North Torrey Pines Living and Learning Neighborhood.

That development opened as planned, but capacity stayed at 17,500 because UCSD had to eliminate 2,000 beds elsewhere to provide for social distancing. It did so in part by banning the practice of placing three students in rooms designed for two. It was planning to make the change, but the pandemic sped things up.

A rendering depicts UC San Diego's planned $565 million Theatre District Living and Learning Neighborhood.

UCSD is scheduled to regain those 2,000 beds in 2023 when it finishes building the Theatre District Living and Learning Neighborhood near La Jolla Village Drive and North Torrey Pines Road.

The campus also will gain more than 1,300 beds when it builds a smaller village for graduate students. That project has been placed on pause due to the pandemic.

Ouillet said he foresees no problems filling rooms as they become available.

“Many in the public imagine that when [classes] shift online, people just want to stay home with their parents,” Ouillet said. “This is not true. Students want to be with other students, they want to make connections.” ◆