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Picture the “typical” international student at an American high school. You may think of an exchange student from Europe, but even more typical is a student from Asia seeking an American high school diploma.

A new research brief from the Institute of International Education finds that the pool of international students attending American high schools is rapidly expanding, and the majority of those students are pursuing diplomas rather than enrolling in more traditional semester- to yearlong cultural exchange programs. The diploma-seeking students are predominantly from Asia, almost exclusively attend private high schools, and are pursuing secondary credentials with the goal of increasing their chances for admission to U.S. colleges.

“We’ve typically tended to focus on higher education when we’re thinking of inbound student mobility, but we haven’t paid enough attention to the fact that students from overseas are beginning to study abroad at younger and younger ages and that high school does provide a pipeline, or pathway, if you will, into higher education,” said Rajika Bhandari, IIE’s deputy vice president for research and evaluation.

“As these numbers continue to grow, U.S. institutions will need to rethink their recruitment strategies,” Bhandari continued, noting that universities will increasingly be able to recruit international students at domestic high schools. 

The growth of international students at U.S. high schools has been bandied about anecdotally but the IIE brief attaches hard numbers to the trend, finding that the number of students directly enrolled in degree programs in U.S. high schools more than tripled from fall 2004 to 2013, while the number of exchange students grew by a much smaller 15 percent. 

A total of 73,019 students were studying at American high schools in October 2013, with 48,632 of them (67 percent) enrolled directly in degree programs on F-1 visas, while the remainder (33 percent) participated in cultural exchange programs on J-1 visas. While a small number of the former F-1 students may be enrolled in programs that look like shorter-term cultural exchanges in practice, the research brief's author, Christine A. Farrugia, said that IIE's analysis and interviews suggest that roughly 90 percent of the F-1 students are diploma-seeking.   

Students from Asia make up 57 percent of all international high school students in the U.S., followed by students from Europe (28 percent) and Latin America and the Caribbean (10 percent). China is the top sending country (as it is for international enrollments at the higher education level). South Korea, also a major sender of students to U.S. colleges, is second: students from China and South Korea combined make up 44 percent of all international high school students in the U.S.

The majority of students from Asia are directly enrolled in U.S. high schools as diploma-seeking students, while the majority of students from Europe are studying on short-term exchanges of a semester or year (77 percent of European students study on J-1 visas). Germany is the main sending country in Europe, followed by Spain, Italy and Norway, all of which sent more than 1,000 high school students to the U.S. in 2013.

Top 10 Countries of Origin for International High School Students in the U.S. in 2013

Country of Origin Number
of Students
of Total
1. China 23,562 32.3%
2. South Korea 8,777 12
3. Germany 7,130 9.8
4. Mexico 2,659 3.6
5. Brazil 2,292 3.1
6. Vietnam 2,289 3.1
7. Spain 2,125 2.9
8. Japan 1,959 2.7
9. Thailand 1,827 2.5
10. Italy 1,718 2.4

The IIE brief notes that while the high proportion of students from East Asia is consistent with enrollment patterns of international students at the postsecondary level, in other cases there are differences in high school versus higher education trends. For example, India and Saudi Arabia, two of the top five countries of origin for international students at American colleges and universities, both send negligible numbers of students to the U.S. for high school. 

The research brief also considers the types of high schools students are attending. As F-1 visa regulations prohibit international students from spending more than one year at a public high school, the majority of the diploma-seeking students (95 percent) are enrolled at private high schools. The research brief notes that the “recent growth of international secondary students in the U.S. is largely due to the increase in their enrollment at private schools,” which have stepped up their international recruitment efforts to make the classroom more diverse and bring in more tuition revenue. 

“While there have long been some international students at U.S. boarding schools, private day schools are increasingly enrolling international students who attend alongside other day students and live with host families in the area,” the research brief states. Fifty-eight percent of F-1 students attend religiously affiliated schools, and 43 percent attend schools with no religious affiliation.

The research brief also includes comparative data on international high school students in Australia, Canada and the U.K. with the caveat that because of differences in data definitions and methodology the figures may not be directly comparable. According to the report in 2013 there were 16,693 international students in Australian high schools, 23,757 in Canadian high schools, and 25,912 in private schools in the U.K.

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