International Recovery

New data suggest that the post-9/11 crisis in foreign enrollments is over; Americans studying abroad increased by 8%.
November 13, 2006

Since 9/11, educators focused on international exchange have generally seen American higher education facing a crisis: Colleges' ability to attract foreign students has been seriously hurt by tougher visa rules and increased competition from other countries.

Data being released today as part of the annual "Open Doors" study by the Institute of International Education, however, show that total enrollments effectively stabilized in 2005-6, following two years of declines. Total enrollment accounts for both new and continuing students, and changes in visa policies and recruitment practices show up primarily in the new student figures. There, the picture is more encouraging and suggests that a rebound is on the way -- and that total numbers are poised for a significant increase in the years ahead.

The new data show an 8 percent increase in new students from other countries. And a survey of colleges for fall 2006 data (less precise than the detailed information available for the previous year) found that more than half of American colleges are reporting increases in international enrollments, while only 20 percent are reporting declines.

"I think everyone is relieved to see that the declines of the past few years have leveled out, and we're seeing a bump up in new students," said Peggy Blumenthal, executive vice president of the Institute of International Education. "It's going to take a while for the new cohort to work its way through the system, but we're going to see increases."

In 2005-6, India maintained its position as the top country in sending students to the United States, although its totals declined by 4.9 percent. The 76,503 Indian students at American colleges in 2005-6 made up 13.5 percent of all foreign students in the country. Of the top 20 countries sending students, Korea (#3) saw its enrollments increase by 10.3 percent, Hong Kong (#12) was up by 9.3 percent, and Nepal (#19) was up by 24.7 percent. Japan, Turkey, Colombia and Pakistan reported the largest declines -- all between 5 and 10 percent.

The Institute of International Education also releases data on American students who enroll in programs in other countries -- and reported that  205,983 students did so in 2004-5 -- an increase of 7.7 percent from the previous year and double the number from a decade ago. Western Europe remains by far the most popular destination, but some of the largest percentage increases (on small bases) are to countries elsewhere: Argentina, Brazil, China and India.

The numbers for total enrollments of foreign students in the United States show that in this decade, enrollments were hitting unprecedented levels prior to 9/11 -- both in total numbers and share of the student body at American institutions.

Total Enrollment of International Students at Colleges in U.S.

Year Total Foreign Enrollment 1-Year % Increase Intl. Share of Total  Enrollments in U.S.
2000-1 547,867 +6.4% 3.9%
2001-2 582,996 +6.4% 4.3%
2002-3 586,323 +0.6% 4.6%
2003-4 572,509 -2.4% 4.3%
2004-5 565,039 -1.3% 4.0%
2005-6 564,766 -0.1% 3.9%

Students from other countries enroll in a range of programs at college in the United States. Just under half are graduate students, and there is a strong practical orientation in the fields of study of foreign students -- whether in undergraduate or graduate programs. Of all foreign students, 17.9 percent are in business and management programs, 15.7 percent in engineering, 8.1 percent in mathematics and computer science, and 8.9 percent in physical and life sciences. The humanities share is 2.9 percent.

For American colleges, there are numerous reasons to value foreign students. There is the altruistic, educational role, of course -- in which American students are exposed to people and ideas from all over the world, and non-Americans get to learn about American culture and values firsthand, while getting an education better than they might find at home. But there are also very practical reasons American college administrators need to worry about these figures. Many a science or engineering lab could not function these days on American talent alone.

And foreign students bring dollars to American higher education: According to the data being released today, the primary source of funds for 63.4 percent of foreign students is themselves and their families. American colleges are the top source of support for only 25.9 percent of the students.

A variety of factors -- real and imagined -- can have an impact on enrollment patterns from various countries. Blumenthal said that visa policies and the recruitment efforts of colleges obviously play a huge role. But she also said that the rumor mill was important. When word on the street is that visas are hard to come by, students stop applying. To counter this, she praised an effort by many U.S. embassies to post on their Web sites the average wait times on new visas. (See an example from the Web site of the embassy in China.)

Such factors are particularly important, she said, as other countries step up efforts to recruit foreign talent and an effort to "harmonize" European higher education under three-year undergraduate degrees may make students from Europe (and other places with three-year degrees) more likely to seek graduate education in countries that automatically recognize the three-year degrees. "Institutions [in the United States] are going to have to look at the entire record, and not just whether a degree was three years or four," she said.

While students from all over the world come to the United States, three countries -- India, China, and South Korea -- account for more than one third of the total.

Top 10 Countries of Origin for Foreign Students in U.S., 2005-6

Rank and Country Total 1-Year % Change Share of International Enrollments
1. India 76,503 -4.9% 13.5%
2. China 62,582 +0.1% 11.1%
3. South Korea 58,847 +10.3% 10.4%
4. Japan 38,712 -8.3% 6.9%
5. Canada 28,202 +0.2% 5.0%
6. Taiwan 27,876 +7.6% 4.9%
7. Mexico 13,931 +6.6% 2.5%
8. Turkey 11,622 -6.8% 2.1%
9. Germany 8,829 +2.2% 1.6%
10. Thailand 8,765 +1.5% 1.6%

The University of Southern California maintained its position as the top destination for international students. Research universities generally top the list, given the high proportion of such students enrolled in graduate and professional programs. A location near the Pacific also helps, especially given the large numbers coming from Asia. In addition to Southern California, the top five master's institutions are in California as are two of the top five community colleges. Among bachelor's institutions, two are in Hawaii.

Top Destinations for International Students in the U.S., 2005-6

Rank and Institution Foreign Enrollment
Research universities  
1. U. of Southern California 6,881
2. Columbia U. 5,575
3. Purdue U., main campus 5,540
4. New York U. 5,502
5. U. of Texas at Austin 5,395
Master's institutions  
1. San Francisco State U. 2,016
2. California State U. at Northridge 1,693
3. California State U. at Long Beach 1,670
4. California State U. at Fullerton 1,593
5. San Jose State U. 1,565
Bachelor's institutions
1. Brigham Young U. -- Hawaii campus 1,141
2. SUNY Fashion Institute of Technology 1,018
3. Utah Valley State College 454
4. U. of Hawaii at Hilo 418
5. U. of Dallas 372
Community colleges  
1. Houston Community College 3,227
2. Santa Monica College 2,658
3. Montgomery College (Md.) 2,179
4. De Anza College (Cal.) 2,112
5. CUNY Borough of Manhattan CC 1,679

Beyond examining the trends for international students in the United States, "Open Doors" also looks at American students who go abroad -- although that is typically for a semester or year, not an entire degree program.

Experts on international education have generally had three goals for American students: getting more of them to abroad, getting them to look beyond Western Europe, and getting a broader cross-section of students to consider study abroad. This year's data suggest progress on the first two goals.

Not only are the total numbers up, but there are good percentage increases for some non-European countries, and Britain, while still the top destination, is down slightly.

Top Destinations for Americans Studying Abroad, 2004-5

Rank and Country American Enrollments 1-Year % Change % of Americans Studying Abroad
1. Britain 32,071 -0.5% 15.6%
2. Italy 24,858 +13.4% 12.1%
3. Spain 20,806 +3.6% 10.1%
4. France 15,374 +12.1% 7.5%
5. Australia 10,813 -5.3% 5.2%
6. Mexico 9,244 -0.5% 4.5%
7. Germany 6,557 +9.6% 3.2%
8. China 6,389 +34.9% 3.1%
9. Ireland 5,083 -2.2% 2.5%
10. Costa Rica 4,887 +8.4% 2.4%
11. Japan 4,100 +10.6% 2.0%
12. Austria 2,757 +12.8% 1.3%
13. New Zealand 2,657 +12.2% 1.3%
14. Czech Republic 2,494 +19.4% 1.2%
15. Greece 2,445 +16.5% 1.2%
16. Chile 2,393 +12.1% 1.2%
17. South Africa 2,304 +14.7% 1.1%
18. Argentina 2,013 +53.1% 1.0%
19. Brazil 1,994 +28.3% 1.0%
20. India 1,767 +52.7% 0.9%

Blumenthal of the Institute of International Education said that she was encouraged by the large percentage increases to countries such as India, China and Argentina. "The large numbers are still going to the traditional sites, but the growth [in other places] says to me that people are seeing a professional advantage to having spent time in India or China," she said.

Colleges should continue to look for ways to encourage such choices, she said. But it's no failure any time an American student goes abroad -- even to an English-speaking nation with many similarities to the United States. "I think anytime you can get anyone out of the United States and out of their own culture, it's an important and powerful learning experience," she said.

One disappointment to Blumenthal is the demographics of the American study abroad contingent. Just over 65 percent of participants are female, and 83 percent are white -- proportions that have been relatively steady for a decade.

"Female students appear more willing to take time off," she said.

Part of the reason, historically, has been that many science and engineering programs were lopsided with male enrollments, and these programs have historically sent few students abroad. For that reason, she said she was pleased by the new push at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to encourage more of its undergraduates to study abroad.

At the same time, she said that gender appeared to be an issue beyond disciplinary choice. Of engineering students who currently study abroad, far more are women than men, Blumenthal said.

The institute has been working with faculty members at historically black colleges, taking some of them on foreign trips to promote the idea that they should recruit their students for foreign programs.

"We need to do a better job of making students of color and their parents realize what's possible," she said.

With more of a national emphasis on international education, many colleges seek bragging rights about the percentage of their students who go abroad. IIE does a calculation and ranking -- although the system (based on study abroad figures for a year and the number of graduates) results in some colleges with rankings indicating that more than 100 percent of undergraduates study abroad. But with the caveat that the comparisons are imperfect, here are the rankings.

College With Greatest Share of Undergraduates Abroad, 2004-5

Rank and Institution Undergraduates Abroad % of Undergraduates Who Study Abroad
Research universities    
1. Yeshiva U. 637 76.7%
2. U. of Denver 640 68.7%
3. U. of St. Thomas (Minn.) 714 66.4%
4. Wake Forest U. 599 59.9%
5. Georgetown U. 981 58.7%
Master's institutions    
1. Elon U. 915 102.9%
2. Hamline U. 325 79.5%
3. U. of Evansville 306 67.7%
4. Warren Wilson College 101 65.6%
5. Arcadia U. 196 64.5%
Bachelor's institutions    
1. Austin College 341 110.0%
2. Kalamazoo College 283 99.3%
3. Centre College 252 97.7%
4. Wofford College 240 97.2%
5. Colby College 456 93.8%



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