Mixed Outlook on Foreign Students

2008-9 saw record international enrollment in U.S. and 2007-8 saw record for Americans studying abroad. New data suggest years of big increases may be ending.
November 16, 2009

The data being released today through the annual "Open Doors" study by the Institute of International Education might in any other year be cause for celebration for American educators. Record numbers of international students enrolling in the United States. Record numbers of American students traveling abroad for part of their education.

But the impact of the worldwide economic downturn is omnipresent in higher education, and there are signs that the healthy increases being reported today may not be replicated next year or perhaps for a while. That's because Open Doors, the definitive survey on foreign enrollments and study abroad, is definitive in part because it's not up to the minute.

Its latest figures on foreign students in the United States come from the last academic year and the latest figures on study abroad are one year older than that. Other data being released today -- less definitive but coming from this academic year -- suggest a slowing of these increases, and indicate that many colleges in the United States are seeing decreases in international enrollments.

The figures are important for many reasons -- both educational and financial. American colleges benefit from both the diversity and expertise international students bring to their campuses. Financially, many of these students pay their own way, and recruiting them -- especially in an era when many other countries are vying for the same talent -- is a top priority for many institutions.

Open Doors: International Students in the United States

The figures from 2008-9 are historic for several reasons. The 671,616 international students who enrolled in the United States that year represent an all-time high number, up 7.7 percent from the year before. Further, international students made up 3.7 percent of the total enrollment at colleges and universities in the United States, up from 3.5 percent the year before, and 3.3 percent the year before that. Since the Institute for International Education started counting in 1948, that percentage has never been higher, and it was reached only once previously, in 2001-2, just before 9/11.

New international enrollments -- a key figure for projecting future trends since many students, once in the United States, will stay for several years to finish programs -- are up by an even larger percentage, 15.8 percent in a year. While graduate students continue to be the top category of foreign students, and grew at a healthy rate, the year saw even larger percentage gains for undergraduate and non-degree students. These findings are consistent with the experiences of many colleges that have been reporting increasing number of undergraduate applicants from countries like China that previously sent primarily graduate students to the United States.

New International Students, by Enrollment Category

  Total 2008-9 1-Year Increase 4-Year Increase
Undergraduate 82,136 20.4% 37.0%
Graduate 84,828 8.1% 38.3%
Non-degree 33,496 26.7% 214.4%
Total 200,460 15.8% 51.9%

In terms of where the students are coming from, the top three countries remain the same as the previous year: India, China and South Korea. Together, those three countries account for more than 41 percent of all international students in the United States. Canada overtook Japan for the fourth slot. And Vietnam joined the top 10 list (and the #9 slot), sending Thailand out of the list.

Countries Sending the Most Students to the United States, 2008-9

Rank Country Total % of International Total 1-Year % Change
1. India 103,260 15.4% +9.2%
2. China 98,235 14.6% +21.1%
3. South Korea 76,065 11.2% +8.6%
4. Canada 29,697 4.4% +2.2%
5. Japan 29,264 4.4% -13.9%
6. Taiwan 28,065 4.2% -3.2%
7. Mexico 14,850 2.2% +0.1%
8. Turkey 13,263 2.0% +10.2%
9. Vietnam 12,823 1.9% +46.2%
10 Saudi Arabia 12,661 1.9% +28.2%

As is typically the case, the American institutions enrolling the greatest number of foreign students are all research universities. The top five are: the University of Southern California, New York University, Columbia University, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Purdue University. While Southern Cal leads the nation with 7,482 international students, 171 colleges and universities have at least 1,000 foreign students.

Among non-research universities, San Jose State University had the largest foreign enrollment total among master's institutions (2,522), while the Fashion Institute of Technology of the State University of New York led among baccalaureate institutions (1,090) and the Houston Community College System led among community colleges (5,580).

Open Doors: Study Abroad

The total figures for study abroad for 2007-8 set records (although these figures predate the recession, which some experts believe is depressing totals now). In 2007-8, the total for study abroad was 262,416, an increase of 8.5 percent in one year and of over 150 percent in a decade.

Study abroad participants for the year were -- as they have been for a long time -- likely to be female and white. While many colleges have been trying to diversify their study abroad cohorts, there was little sign of success for the year. Women made up 65.1 percent of study abroad participants, the exact same percentage as the year before. The white enrollment share fell only marginally, by .01 percentage points to 81.8 percent.

Educators may be having a bit more success at diversifying the study abroad destinations of American students. Western Europe continues to dominate, and the top 10 destinations are exactly the same as the previous year, with Britain leading the way, followed by three other Western European nations. But some of the largest percentage increases among top 10 destinations were outside of Western Europe.

Top Destinations for American College Students, 2007-8

Rank Country Total Total as % of Study Abroad 1-Year Increase
1. Britain 33,333 12.7% 1.9%
2. Italy 30,670 11.7% 10.2%
3. Spain 25,212 9.6% 5.0%
4. France 17,336 6.6% 0.6%
5. China 13,165 5.0% 19.0%
6. Australia 11,042 4.2% 2.7%
7. Mexico 9,928 3.8% 4.9%
8. Germany 8,253 3.1% 12.2%
9. Ireland 6,881 2.6% 18.9%
10. Costa Rica 6,096 2.3% 13.2%

While Britain continues to lead, this is the second straight year in which its increases didn't hit 2 percent. In contrast, China's 19 percent growth in the latest data follows a 25 percent increase the prior year. In this year's figures below the top 10, several countries outside Western Europe showed large increases, including Japan (up 13.9 percent), Argentina (up 13.6 percent), South Africa (up 15.0 percent) and India (up 19.8 percent).

As many educators have praised the benefits of study abroad, institutions have boasted about the number and proportion of students who participate. The institutions that lead in total numbers are, not surprisingly, large universities -- New York University, Michigan State University and the University of Minnesota Twin Cities making up the top three.

But looking at which colleges' students are most likely to have studied abroad during their college educations, liberal arts colleges tend to have stronger numbers in the IIE data.

The following table shows the colleges with the greatest proportion of students experiencing study abroad. One caution is that the IIE calculates the share of undergraduate study abroad participation by comparing the number of students abroad with the number of students graduating in the same year -- an imperfect calculation that can be thrown off by an unusually large or small graduating class, or students who study abroad more than once. Some of the rankings below therefore show study abroad participation at above 100 percent. (And for this year, the leading baccalaureate college, Antioch College, was in a transitional year with very low numbers of graduates, most likely sending its rate much higher than it would have been otherwise.)

Top Colleges by Undergraduate Participation Rate in Study Abroad, 2007-8, by Sector

Sector and College Study Abroad Students Participation Rate
1. Pepperdine U. 782 96.7%
2. U. of San Diego 892 78.5%
3. U. of Denver 810 73.6%
4. Wake Forest U. 692 67.3%
5. U. of St. Thomas (Minnesota) 783 64.6%
1. Arcadia U. 485 109.0%
2. Elon U. 1,115 101.0%
3. Lee U. 580 100.5%
4. U. of Dallas 217 95.6%
5. Hamline U. 417 91.9%
1. Antioch College 118 171.0%
2. Austin College 362 108.1%
3. Hartwick College 305 102.7%
4. Centre College 275 97.9%
5. Kalamazoo College 259 97.4%

A Less Certain Future for Growth

While the overall figures in Open Doors are encouraging, the results of a survey of 700 colleges -- conducted by eight higher education associations -- on this year's trends suggests that next year's report is likely to be more mixed. Figures on this fall's enrollment of new international students suggest that many institutions are not seeing increases, with the world economy as a major factor.

Asked about the key figure of new student enrollments, 45 percent of colleges reported an increase, while 29 percent reported declines and 26 percent reported flat enrollments. A year ago, the figures were 56 percent increase, 19 percent decline and 25 percent level.

The early figures on countries suggest a continuation of the trend seen in Open Doors this year of #2 China increasing at a faster rate than No. 1 India. About the same number of colleges are reporting increases and decreases in new enrollments from India, the survey found. But of institutions enrolling the greatest number of international students, more are reporting decreases than increases. Shifting to China, however, 60 percent of colleges are reporting increases, compared to only 10 percent reporting decreases.

The findings are in many ways similar to those of a survey on first-time graduate enrollments conducted by the Council of Graduate Schools, which found that graduate schools are this fall reporting on average a 16 percent increase from China and a 16 percent decrease from India. Last month, The Economic Times of India reported on a 25 percent drop in the number of U.S. visas being awarded in India, with educators saying that Indian students weren't receiving great aid offers from American colleges and were thus staying home or looking elsewhere.

Of institutions reporting declines this year, when asked about reasons for declines, the top explanations were the worldwide economic downturn, the cost of higher education in the United States, and economic problems specific to potential students' home countries.

Trying to prevent or minimize enrollment decreases, 57 percent of campuses reported that they took special steps this year to help with recruitment. These included new staff or staff time devoted to international recruitment, new funding for international recruitment travel, and new funding for marketing efforts.

The survey was carried out by the Institute of International Education in cooperation with American Association of Community Colleges, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, the American Council on Education, the Association of American Universities, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, the Council of Graduate Schools and NAFSA: Association of International Educators.


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