Economy Doesn't Stymie Study Abroad

Worries that the worldwide economic downturn would trigger a slip in international education should be largely alleviated by this year’s "Open Doors" report, which shows that during the peak of the recession, international student enrollment continued to rise and -- for the first time in the report’s history -- the total number of U.S. students who studied abroad declined slightly.

Also, China overtook India as the country sending the most international students to the U.S.

November 15, 2010

Worries that the worldwide economic downturn would trigger a slip in international education should be largely alleviated by this year’s "Open Doors" report, which shows that during the peak of the recession, international student enrollment continued to rise and -- for the first time in the report’s history -- the total number of U.S. students who studied abroad declined slightly.

Also, China overtook India as the country sending the most international students to the U.S.

Open Doors 2010 was expected to reflect the foundering economy because of how -- and when -- the report's data are collected. This year’s report measures the most recent numbers available: international students in the U.S. in 2009-10 and American students abroad the year before that. That means the international students captured in this year's version of the study were assessing their financial situations and deciding whether to go abroad in 2008-9, and American students were doing the same thing in 2007-8. “This is certainly not a good year to expect a whole lot of people to continue their aspirations to study abroad,” said Peggy Blumenthal, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Institute of International Education.

But 2009-10 was another record year for international enrollment in the U.S., and preliminary data gathered by IIE and others this fall suggest that next year’s Open Doors report will reflect similar or larger increases among international students coming to the United States, as well as among American students who go abroad. And other areas that have raised concerns in the past -- in study abroad, low participation by minority group members and few American students choosing to study outside Western Europe; in international enrollment, disparities in which countries are sending students to the U.S. -- are looking up.

So, over all, the IIE officials who publish this comprehensive survey annually are feeling pretty good. “Clearly a lot that was going on was affected by the global economic downturn,” Blumenthal said. “What we’re really seeing is that the economic situation plays out differently in different countries and yet, despite that very hard situation in most countries, the numbers over all continue to rise.”

International Enrollments Still Increasing

This year’s record 690,923 international students coming to the United States represent a 2.9 percent increase over last year’s total, the slowest rate of increase in four years. Last year’s increase was a record 7.7 percent. International graduate enrollments rose 3.7 percent, compared to undergraduates’ 1.7 percent.

International students in 2009-10 again made up 3.5 percent of total U.S. higher education enrollment. New international student enrollment rose only 1.3 percent, to 202,970, compared to a 15.8 percent increase last year and 10 percent increases the two years before that.

New International Students, by Enrollment Category

  Total 2009-10 1-year increase 5-year increase
Undergraduate 79,365 -3.4% 32.4%
Graduate 84,613 -0.3% 37.9%
Non-degree 38,992 16.4% 266%
Total 202,970 1.3% 53.8%

Growth is being driven largely by the international student behemoth that is China. That country sends the most students to the U.S., by far; in 2009-10, 127,628 Chinese students are studying in America, 29.9 percent more than in 2008-9 and about 20,000 more than the second top-sending country, India. (China took over India’s spot as the top sending country in this year's Open Doors report.) The only other sending country with a similar rate of increase is Saudi Arabia, which sent 15,810 students, a 24.9 percent increase over last year that moved it up from No. 10 to No. 7.

The usual suspects are sending most of the students: Chinese, Indian and South Korean students make up 44 percent of total international enrollments -- that’s three percent more than last year. The rest of the top 25 countries saw a mix of increases and decreases in student participation. “Students still see the U.S. as the place they want to go,” Blumenthal said, “if they can afford to get there.”

Countries Sending the Most Students to the United States, 2009-10

Country Total % of International Total 1-Year Change
1. China 127,628 18.5% +29.9%
2. India 104,897 15.2% +1.6%
3. South Korea 72,153 10.4% -3.9%
4. Canada 28,145 4.1% -5.2%
5. Taiwan 26,685 3.9% -4.9%
6. Japan 24,842 3.6% -15.1%
7. Saudi Arabia 15,810 2.3% +24.9%
8. Mexico 13,450 1.9% -9.4%
9. Vietnam 13,112 1.9% +2.3%
10. Turkey 12,397 1.8% +2.0%

China’s 29.9 percent increase follows a 19 percent rise in 2008-09 and one of 25 percent the year before. While it’s generally considered better to have more students from more countries, the continued surge of students from China -- mostly undergraduates -- isn’t a bad thing, either, Blumenthal said. Because those students are studying different fields in different college environments all over the country, there are various degrees of exposure going on for them and for their American counterparts.

“All of these students when they graduate are going to have careers that somehow interact with China,” Blumenthal said. “To have as your classmate, and roommate, and lab partner, a student from the People’s Republic of China … is really going to make a big difference for our success as well as China’s success.”

Research universities again dominate international enrollment, though the order of institutions did shift a bit. The University of Southern California -- for the ninth year in a row -- played host to the most students, followed by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, up from No. 4 last year; New York University, down from No. 2; Purdue University, up from No. 5; and Columbia University, down from No. 3.

Historic Decline for Study Abroad

It’s slight, yes, but historic: the 0.8 percent decline in American students abroad -- dropping the total to 260,327 -- is the first drop in the 25 years Open Doors has reported the data. But a fall 2010 online survey also found that more than half of colleges said there are more students studying abroad in 2009-10, so Blumenthal doesn’t think the decline will recur in next year’s report.

The other key finding in this year’s report shows that American students are continuing to branch out beyond their typical study abroad haunts. “In the 21st century it’s impossible to understand any field without thinking globally and looking beyond Western Europe,” Blumenthal said. For instance, an environmental studies major might go to China or Costa Rica, and an information technology major might go to India. “So you’re seeing the numbers rise in places that seem more tied to a student’s future career and what the return on investment will be. Which I think is a calculation students and parents are having to make much more sharply during times of economic hardship.”

Campus linkages with institutions abroad might also be driving the student dispersal. Colleges teaming up with others overseas are more equipped to send students to different countries. But the individuals deserve some credit, too, Blumenthal said: “You see a real intellectual curiosity among young people and among campus faculty in needing to help understand the rest of the world and how the rest of the world sees us.”

Fifteen of the top 25 destinations were outside Western Europe this year, and 19 were not primarily English-speaking countries. The top four destinations -- Britain, Italy, Spain and France -- remained the same, but unlike last year, all saw decreases in U.S. enrollment. China was the only country in the top five to see an increase, of 3.9 percent.

Top Destinations for American Study Abroad Students, 2008-09

Country Total % of Study Abroad Total 1-Year Change
1. Britain 31,342 12% -6%
2. Italy 27,362 10.5% -10.8%
3. Spain 24,169 9.3% -4.1%
4. France 16,910 6.5% -2.5%
5. China 13,674 5.3% +3.9%
6. Australia 11,140 4.3% +0.9%
7. Germany 8,330 3.2% +0.9%
8. Mexico 7,320 2.8% -26.3%
9. Ireland 6,858 2.6% -.3%
10. Costa Rica 6,363 2.4% +4.4%

While Europe still draws 55 percent of U.S. students, some traditionally less popular destinations again gained popularity this year. Many had double-digit increases; Peru's was highest, with 32.1 percent, followed by South Korea, Chile, Denmark and Argentina. Mexico and India, meanwhile, had double-digit decreases that dropped them to positions 8 and 21, respectively (Germany took Mexico’s previous spot, and India was surpassed by Brazil and New Zealand).

American students going abroad are, once again, primarily female (64.2 percent of students) and white (80.5 percent). But those predominances continue to decrease, ever so slightly (as in, tenths of a percentage point annually), partly thanks to targeted outreach and scholarship programs designed to help financially needy students study abroad.

The top two sending institutions, New York University and Michigan State University, are the same, but the third, the University of California at Los Angeles, is new to the top three. In terms of undergraduate participation rates, Pepperdine University, the University of San Diego and Wake Forest University top the list. (Participation rates are calculated by comparing the number of students who went abroad with the number of degrees the college conferred that year, so numbers can be skewed by students who study abroad multiple times or unusually large or small graduating classes -- which explains participation rates above 100 percent.)

Top Colleges by Participation Rate in Study Abroad, 2008-09, by sector

Sector and College Undergraduate Study Abroad Students Estimated % Undergraduate Participation in Study Abroad
1. Pepperdine University 608 73.3%
2. University of San Diego 830 65.7%
3. Wake Forest University 670 63%
4. University of Denver 810 61.4%
5. American University 828 59.8%
1. Arcadia University 534 132.2%
2. Lee University 634 106.4%
3. Elon University 1,092 96%
4. University of Dallas 217 85.1%
5. Oklahoma Christian University 99 71.7%
1. Goucher College 365 130.4%
2. Centre College 325 119.9%
3. Taylor University 476 112.5%
4. Austin College 311 101.6%
5. Saint Olaf College 680 98.6%

It should be noted that the total of U.S. study abroad students is a slightly low estimate because students who study abroad are counted only after they return to America. So students who graduate abroad or don’t receive college credit when they return are not counted as study abroad students in the survey. But Blumenthal estimated those students number only as few as 100 or as many as 1,000.

The 2010-11 Forecast for International Enrollment and Study Abroad

Surveys conducted this fall, separate from Open Doors but released in conjunction with it, suggest next year's report will show an increase in international enrollment and study abroad participation.

New and overall international enrollments are expected to rise again next year. Of the 700 institutions that responded to the survey, 52 percent said they enrolled more international students in fall 2010, 27 percent said they stayed about the same and 21 percent reported declines.

Colleges say the biggest reasons for increased international enrollment are active recruiting, growing reputation and visibility of U.S. institutions abroad, and linkages with overseas campuses. Colleges whose enrollment declined said the world financial crisis was only the second biggest reason, behind the cost of tuition and fees at U.S. institutions.

Sixty-one percent of institutions said they took special steps this year to ensure enrollment did not decline, such as collaborative international programs, or adding staff to recruitment efforts.

The study abroad survey suggests this report's decrease may rebound next year. Fifty-five percent of institutions said more of their students studied abroad in 2009-10, and 32 percent said the opposite. Colleges also reported fewer study abroad budget and staffing cuts this year, and taking steps such as partnering with overseas institutions to increase study abroad participation.

It appears that American students continued to diversify their destinations last year, with colleges reporting increases to China, the Middle East and Africa. Institutions also said more students are choosing shorter and less expensive programs, and less expensive destinations.


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