Record Year* for Foreign Student Enrollment

International numbers up 7 percent, but reported increase is fueled largely by big gains in non-degree and training programs, and more accurate counting. Study abroad keeps growing.
November 17, 2008

More foreign students came to the United States in the 2007-8 academic year than ever before. But while there were some gains in the core undergraduate and graduate populations, particularly at the graduate level, the record result was driven largely by dramatic increases in the numbers of international students employed off-campus through optional practical training (OPT) and those enrolled in non-degree and intensive English programs. Meanwhile, the number of Americans studying abroad continues steadily growing, according to the latest installment of Open Doors, an annual survey conducted by the Institute of International Education (IIE).

In total, the data show a 7 percent increase in international students in the United States over a one-year period, the 623,805 total besting the previous record of 586,323 from 2002-3. However, as an important asterisk to the data, the percentage increase for undergraduate enrollment was 2.2, for graduate 4.8, and for “other” (non-degree, intensive English, and OPT) 28.5 percent. (Students on optional practical training are in the labor market, employed in short-term positions related to their field of study; they remain on a student visa through the "practical training" period. Although there are exceptions, they often have minimal contact with their host academic institutions while on OPT, and in many cases have in fact already completed their courses of study there.)

In raw numbers, foreign undergraduate enrollment climbed by 5,310 students, graduate enrollment by 12,554 students, and the "other" category by 22,957.

International graduate enrollment bested previous highs, but undergraduate enrollment has not recovered from post 9-11 drops (per the chart below).

A huge -- 36.3 percent -- increase in OPT numbers over one year, from 41,660 to 56,766, is particularly striking, and is likely due both to increased interest in and awareness of OPT, and better monitoring of these students when they leave campus for their work assignments, said Peggy Blumenthal, IIE's executive vice president. In other words, some of the reported gains are probably attributable not to an actual increase in students coming to the United States, but to more accurate counting of them.

"I think the 56,000 [figure] is correct but I think the previous years may have been under-counted," said Blumenthal, who added that the number of students in OPT is likely to continue growing since the U.S. government extended the maximum OPT period from 12 to 29 months for science, technology, math and engineering students in April (too late, Blumenthal said, to have a direct effect on the figures for this survey).

Since these students on OPT are typically detached from their colleges, off campus working rather than participating in academic programs on a campus, "There's been discussion of should we even be counting them at all in Open Doors," Blumenthal said. However, she pointed out that they're included in the U.S. government database that tracks international students and are "here under a student visa. And OPT is practical training related to your academic work, so they are learning. They’re just not learning in the classroom."

Foreign enrollment in intensive English programs grew by 23.5 percent, to 24,468 students, and it increased in non-degree programs by 16.7 percent, to 22,369.

To put some historical perspective on the growth of the "other" category, “In recent years, percentage growth in the [intensive English language] and OPT sectors has exceeded growth in international student enrollment at graduate and undergraduate institutions," said Victor C. Johnson, senior adviser for public policy at NAFSA: Association of International Educators. "That growth is very welcome. It’s important to have students studying intensive English in this country and it’s important to be graduating our international students into jobs in OPT in our economy. But we do need to also disaggregate that data and see that the growth in the enrollment in degree-granting institutions is not as dramatic, particularly at the undergraduate level, and that is an indication that we have a lot more work to do.”

Blumenthal pointed to promise for growth in the core undergraduate and graduate programs in future years, pointing out that not only are intensive English programs gateways to degree programs for many students, but also that the number of new international students is up by about 10 percent for the second year in a row, "and new enrollments have nothing to do with OPT."

"That means if this trend continues we’re going to probably be at a record high next year."

A "snapshot" survey of this fall's enrollment trends conducted by eight higher education associations, including IIE and NAFSA, found that overall foreign student enrollment increased at 57 percent of 778 institutions that responded (16 percent reported declines and 27 percent reported flat numbers). The survey, which is separate from the much more comprehensive Open Doors, could provide a first hint of next November's Open Doors numbers, for 2008-9.

Change in Foreign Students in the United States, by Academic Level

Year Undergrad % Change Graduate % Change Other % Change
2000-1 254,429 7.3 238,497 9.3 54,941 -7.3
2001-2 261,079 2.6 264,749 11 57,168 4.1
2002-3 260,103 -0.4 267,876 1.2 58,344 2.1
2003-4 248,200 -4.6 274,310 2.4 49,999 -14.3
2004-5 239,212 -3.6 264,410 -3.6 61,417 22.8
2005-6 236,342 -1.2 259,704 -1.8 68,707 11.9
2006-7 238,050 0.7 264,288 1.8 80,646 17.4
2007-8 243,360 2.2 276,842 4.8 103,603 28.5

Source: Institute of International Education

According to the Open Doors data, there were increases in the numbers of international students from eight of the top 10 countries of origin, including a 12.8 percent rise from India, 19.8 percent from China, and 10.8 percent from South Korea (the top three countries of origin, respectively). The number from No. 4 Japan declined 3.7 percent and the number from No. 6 Taiwan dipped 0.3 percent. Fueled by a Saudi government-sponsored scholarship program launched in 2005, the number from No. 9 Saudi Arabia continued rising, by 25.2 percent this year. Saudi Arabia cracked the top 10 for the first time since 1982-3.

The number of students from No. 13 Vietnam increased hugely, by 45.3 percent. Nigeria, at No. 20, replaced Kenya as the only African country in the top 20. "The problems continue to be with Africa, where the economies of those countries just mean that it's very hard for them to send folks abroad and there are fewer U.S. government-funded programs to support them. Years ago, there used to be some major U.S. AID funding for what they called participant training and now that money is largely gone," Blumenthal said.

For the seventh year in a row, the University of Southern California was the leading host institution. Behind it were New York University, Columbia University, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Purdue University.

Study Abroad

In terms of U.S. students studying abroad, 8.2 percent growth in 2006-7 followed an 8.5 percent increase the year before. The new total, 241,791, represents a 143 percent increase from just below 100,000 a decade earlier. (While Open Doors data for international students is from 2007-8, the numbers for study abroad are from 2006-7.)

Europe remained the biggest host destination, attracting 57.4 percent of all U.S. students, although the share going there has decreased by about 7 percentage points over the past decade. The United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, France and China were the top five host countries.

The proportion of students going on short-term programs (lasting between two and eight weeks) continues to rise, from 52.8 percent in 2005-6 to 55.4 percent in 2006-7, while the share on quarter- or semester-length programs declined slightly (from 41.7 percent to 40.2 percent), as did the proportion on academic or calendar year programs (from 5.5 to 4.4 percent). Many universities have been investing heavily in short-term, faculty-led programs of late.

There were significant jumps in the numbers of students going to certain destinations outside Western Europe, including, among the top 20 host countries, No. 5 China (up 25.3 percent), No. 12 Argentina (up 26.2 percent), No. 14 South Africa (up 28 percent), No. 17 Ecuador (up 29.6 percent) and No. 20 India (up 24.2 percent). The number heading to the Middle East rose by 6.9 percent, but Americans studying in that region still represent only 1.2 percent of the study abroad pie.

In terms of majors, there's measurable progress in science and engineering, where study abroad participation has traditionally been weak, with increases of 14.5 percent in the physical and life sciences, 16.1 percent in the health sciences, and 13.1 percent in engineering. The number from math and computer science increased 8.1 percent, and, from agriculture, 25.1 percent. The number studying abroad from the humanities stayed flat and the figure actually fell for foreign language students, by 1.4 percent.

In terms of raw numbers, the top five sending institutions were New York University, Michigan State University, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, and the University of Georgia. Another 18 colleges, mostly smaller ones, reported sending more than 80 percent of their students abroad: Arcadia, Elon, and Lee Universities; Austin, Bates, Centre, Colorado, Earlham, Goshen, Goucher, Hartwick, Kalamazoo, Rhodes, Saint Olaf, and Wofford Colleges; and Universities of Dallas, Minnesota Morris, and Saint Thomas.

"The only really discouraging set of numbers are the diversity numbers," said Blumenthal. Study abroad has been and is dominated by white students, who made up 81.9 percent of study abroad students in 2006-7 and 83.9 percent a decade earlier. In 2006-7, 65.1 percent of study abroad students were women, compared to 64.9 percent in 1996-7.

"For as long as we've been collecting data," said Blumenthal, "the diversity of those studying abroad has not really changed at all."


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