• The World View

    A blog from the Center for International Higher Education


Critical Reflections on 2015 Open Doors Numbers

Nearly one million (974,926) international students are studying in the U.S., an increase of 10% over last year, and 304.467 American students are going abroad. But some perspective on these data is required.


November 22, 2015

Nearly one million (974,926 to be exact) international students are now studying in the US, an increase of 10% over last year, and 304.467 American students are going abroad for academic credit, an increase of 5.2%. Remarkable figures were presented by the Institute of International Education in its annual Open Doors survey over 2014-2015.  NAFSA also presented new growth numbers: 373,381 jobs (an increase of 9.8%) and 305 billion dollars (13.8% increase) resulted to the US economy from the presence of international students. These are impressive figures. But some perspective on these data is required and some concern for the future warranted.

The increase in international student numbers came to a large extent from India (29.4%), Saudi Arabia (11.2%) and Brazil (78.2%). China remains the primary sender of international students (nearly 1/3 of all international students and an increase of 10.8%). The only key country showing a serious decline is South Korea (down 6.4%), but still the third largest sender of international students to the US.

What do these figures tell us and how is the US doing in comparison to Europe and other parts of the world? 

Possible fluctuations

In the first place, three countries: China, India and South Korea, still make up 50% of the total number of international students in the US. That is not so different from previous years and makes the US rather sensitive to economic and political fluctuations in these countries.

Secondly, two countries: Saudi Arabia and Brazil, saw substantive growth, but most of their students are funded with government scholarships. This is not the case for other major sending countries, at least not in the same substantive way. There are dark clouds hovering over the future of these two scholarship schemes. The new Saudi government is going to place restrictions and conditions that will limit future access to scholarships, and the Brazilian government has been forced to drastically reduce the budget for its Science Without Borders program. So, it is highly unlikely that numbers from these two countries will continue to grow.

In the third place, the increase from India reflects the stabilization of the rupee after years of steep devaluation, and increased visa restrictions placed by the UK government, previously the main recipient of Indian students. It is uncertain whether this growth will continue. As for China, the slower increase in 2014-2015 over previous years happened even before the downturn of the Chinese economy, so future numbers are not likely to go up again.

Fluctuations from other countries do not portend serious changes to the overall trend. The only country where current realities might have an impact is Syria, but there are currently only 800 Syrian students in the US so if the US would allow more Syrians to come to study, this would have an extremely positive impact on overall numbers, but the reactions from (mainly) Republican governors and members of Congress towards refugees after the recent terrorist acts in Paris make this unlikely. A missed opportunity to use education as an anti-terrorist weapon!

Europe is still seeing increases in the number of international students. No data comparable to Open Doors exists for the region as a whole, but while the percentage of international students in the US is only 4.8% of total enrollment, the average percentage in The Netherlands was 10% of enrollment in 2014-2015. Numbers for the UK and Australia are around 20%. New Zealand showed an increase of 12% this year, 2% more than growth in the US. Sweden, after several years of decline due to the introduction of full-cost fees, has seen a high increase in graduate students, mainly from China and India. More and more countries around the world are targeting international students, so competition is increasing, especially for students from China and India.  While 1 million international students is impressive, as 4.8% of the total, it’s less so!

Study Abroad

The same pattern of issues and concerns applies to the numbers of US students who study abroad for academic credits. The increase in numbers is certainly positive and the campaign to double the numbers is off to a good start with the 5% increase. But the figures also reflect some persistent challenges. In the first place, 53.3% of the students go to Europe and, despite attempts made to diversify destinations, this has not changed from previous years. One might think that the events in Paris will change that, but likely only if more terrorist attacks occur in Europe. Previous attacks in Madrid and London had no serious impact.

Secondly, the duration of study abroad is getting shorter and shorter. Only 3 percent go for a whole academic year while 2/3 go for eight weeks or less.

Thirdly, the dominance of white students continues with only a very small shift,  from 76.3 to 74.3% of the total.

Again, it is good to compare these numbers to what is happening elsewhere. After Europe, the US is still, in raw numbers, the largest sender of students   abroad, but in the percentage of students, participation remains low, around 1.5% of the total enrollment and 10% of graduates.

Countries like Germany, the Netherlands and Norway send far greater percentages abroad, having surpassed 20% of graduates, the target set by the Bologna Ministers of Education.

Internationalizing the Faculty

A third study published during International Education Week, Internationalizing the Tenure Code, by Robin Helms of the American Council on Education (ACE), received less attention and shows that American higher education is less internationalized than the data of IIE and NAFSA seem to indicate. She underscores that faculty are essential to the internationalization process in higher education and an essential condition for campus internationalization is to incentivize and reward them for things such as, integrating international students and study abroad experiences into the curriculum. She found out that teaching with any international reference is rarely considered relevant to tenure and promotion criteria at American universities, “ a trend at odds with institutional goals for internationalization.”

Her study coincides with the conclusions of other studies—not only for the US— that what institutional leaders preach and what numbers pretend to show, not always is an accurate reflection of reality, and that internationalization remains an isolated and marginalized process. As long as we do not stimulate and reward faculty to internationalize their own activities, numbers of mobile students will stay small and the impact of the experience on the quality of education will be minimal.  


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