International Enrollment Up

Report shows 8.1 percent increase in international student enrollment at U.S. universities and 2.1 percent growth in the number of Americans studying abroad. 

November 17, 2014

The number of international students enrolled at U.S. universities increased by 8.1 percent, to 886,052 in 2013-14, according to "Open Doors," an annual report on student mobility published by the Institute of International Education. The number of Americans studying abroad increased by 2.1 percent, to 289,408 in 2012-13.

There are few big surprises in the Open Doors data, which by and large reflect a continuation of recent trends. Indeed, international student enrollments at U.S. universities increased for the eighth consecutive year, with much of that growth once again being driven by a big increase in the number of students coming from the number-one sending country, China (up 16.5 percent). Chinese students now account for 31 percent of all international students in the U.S. -- up from 11 percent in 2000.

Given the large number of students involved, any sign of a change in the trend from China is closely watched. While data released last week by the Council of Graduate Schools showed that the number of first-time students from China at U.S. graduate schools dipped by 1 percent this fall, the Open Doors data -- which are for not this academic year but for the last -- showed increases in total enrollments from China at both the undergraduate and graduate levels (up 17.9 and 11.8 percent, respectively), as well as in non-degree programs such as English language courses (up 3 percent).

To compare reports with similar time frames, IIE’s researchers note that the 11.8 percent increase in Chinese graduate-level enrollments reported by Open Doors for 2013-14 in fact closely parallels CGS’s finding from a year ago that total graduate enrollments from China (as opposed to first-time enrollments) increased by 11 percent in fall 2013. (For this current fall, CGS reported that total graduate enrollments from China increased by 3 percent despite the slight drop in first-time enrollments. The first-time enrollments are seen as an indicator of future trends as many programs take longer than a year.)

"All of our trends are pointing in the same direction,” said Rajika Bhandari, IIE’s deputy vice president for research and evaluation. “One thing to keep in mind is that Open Doors is presenting a much more complete picture of what’s going on with Chinese enrollments because of our coverage of the undergraduate population. That’s where we’ve seen the huge growth in Chinese students over the past few years.”

The Council of Graduate Schools has also reported big gains in enrollment from India, a finding that Open Doors is beginning to reflect as well. The number of students from India, the second-largest sending country after China, increased by 6.1 percent in 2013-14 after three years of declines, with that increase driven by growth in enrollment at the graduate level.

Rounding out the top five countries of origin for international students in the U.S., the number of students from the third-largest sending country, South Korea, dropped (down 3.7 percent) while the number of students from Saudi Arabia jumped by 21 percent. The number from Canada increased by 3.5 percent.

Outside the top five, and from smaller bases, there was double-digit growth in the number of students from Brazil (22.2 percent), Iran (16.6 percent), Kuwait (42.5 percent), and Venezuela (14 percent).

Leading Countries of Origin for International Students at U.S. Universities

Rank and Country of Origin 2012-13 2013-14 Percent
of Total
Percent Change
World Total 819,644 886,052 100 +8.1
1. China 235,597 274,439 31 +16.5
2. India 96,754 102,673 11.6 +6.1
3. South Korea 70,627 68,047 7.7 -3.7
4. Saudi Arabia 44,566 53,919 6.1 +21
5. Canada 27,357 28,304 3.2 +3.5
6. Taiwan 21,867 21,266 2.4 -2.7
7. Japan 19,568 19,334 2.2 -1.2
8. Vietnam 16,098 16,579 1.9 +3
9. Mexico 14,199 14,779 1.7 +4.1
10. Brazil 10,868 13,286 1.5 +22.2
11. Turkey 11,278 10,821 1.2 -4.1
12. Iran 8,744 10,194 1.2 +16.6
13. United Kingdom 9,467 10,191 1.2 +7.6
14. Germany 9,819 10,160 1.1 +3.5
15. France 8,297 8,302 0.9 +0.1
16. Nepal 8,920 8,155 0.9 -8.6
17. Hong Kong 8,026 8,104 0.9 +1
18. Nigeria 7,316 7,921 0.9 +8.3
19. Indonesia 7,670 7,920 0.9 +3.3
20. Thailand 7,314 7,341 0.8 +0.4
21. Kuwait 5,115 7,288 0.8 +42.5
22. Colombia 6,543 7,083 0.8 +8.3
23. Venezuela 6,158 7,022 0.8 +14
24. Malaysia 6,791 6,822 0.8 +0.5
25. Spain 5,033 5,350 0.6 +6.3

“One of the most striking findings for us was the fact that, yes, we have very large numbers from China, but that should not overshadow the fact that we’re seeing a lot of growth from many other countries,” said Rajika Bhandari, IIE’s deputy vice president for research and evaluation. 

Of the increases in students from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Brazil, Bhandari continued, “Here we really see the impact of national scholarship programs. Saudi Arabia was one of the first countries to launch a large-scale scholarship program, the Kuwait program has been more recent and we know the Brazil program has just been unprecedented in its ambition and reach and scope.” Brazil's government announced last summer that it would be expanding upon is initial commitment of 100,000 scholarships for overseas study with an additional 100,000 awards.

Business and management is the most popular field of study for international students, followed closely by engineering. In terms of institution type, international student enrollment increased across the board at doctorate-granting institutions (by 9.3 percent), at master’s-level institutions (7.3 percent), at baccalaureate colleges (7.1 percent) and associate-granting colleges (1.4 percent). Special-focus institutions experienced an 11.1 percent increase.

Four research universities enrolled more than 10,000 international students in 2013-14: New York University, the University of Southern California, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Columbia University.

To mark the 15th celebration of International Education Week, this year’s report highlights changes in international enrollment since 2000. The total number of international students in the U.S. has grown by 72 percent in that time. There are about five times as many Chinese students in the U.S. as there were in 2000 and more than 10 times the number of Saudi students, while there are substantially fewer students from both Japan and Taiwan. The number of students funded by their government has about tripled, although approximately two-thirds of students continue to be supported primarily by personal or family funds.

Meanwhile, the number of American students studying abroad has more than doubled in the past 15 years, from a base of about 130,000 students in 1998-99. IIE is spearheading a campaign known as Generation Study Abroad aimed at doubling study abroad participation again by the decade's end -- though Bhandari noted that at the 2 percent growth rate that will take 25 years. “We can do better than that,” she said. 

One notable finding in this year’s data was significant growth in the number of science, technology, engineering and mathematics majors studying abroad (up 8.8 percent). If you total it up, the number of students in humanities (including foreign languages) and the arts still make up the largest group of study abroad students, but participation in STEM fields has nearly tripled in the past 15 years.

Number of American Students Studying Abroad by Field of Study

Field of Study 2011-12 2012-13 Percent Change
Total 283,332 289,408 +2.1
Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics 59,921 65,223 +8.8
Social Sciences 63,427 63,914 +0.8
Business 58,091 59,147 +1.8
Humanities 30,667 30,167 -1.6
Fine or Applied Arts 22,138 22,670 +2.4
Foreign Languages 14,890 14,077 -5.5
Education 11,539 11,560 +0.2
Undeclared 8,365 7,711 -7.8
Other Fields of Study 14,294 14,939 +4.5

"The big difference we’ve seen over the past 15 years is that U.S. engineering schools, U.S. science departments are really pushing students to study abroad,” said Peggy Blumenthal, the senior counselor to the president at IIE. “That didn’t used to be the case. It used to be students in the social sciences, students in the humanities and arts, their professors have always encouraged study abroad, but now I think there’s been a real sea change among the [STEM] faculty members encouraging and making possible this kind of short-term study abroad within your academic degree.”

About three-fifths of students who study abroad (60.3 percent) do so on short term programs (defined as either a summer program or one that lasts eight weeks or fewer). Another 36.5 percent of students studied for one or two quarters or a semester, while 3.2 percent studied abroad for an academic or calendar year.

The United Kingdom remains the most popular destination for American study abroad students (up 4.5 percent), followed by Italy (up 0.7 percent), Spain (down 0.8 percent), France (up 0.2 percent), and China (down 3.2 percent). Other top destinations, in order of popularity, are Germany (up 1.9 percent), Costa Rica (up 7.6 percent), Australia (down 10.8 percent), Ireland (up 5.8 percent) and Japan (up 9 percent). There were swings of 10 percentage points or more this year for #11 destination South Africa (up 17.6 percent), #18 Denmark (up 14.8 percent), #19 South Korea (up 12.9 percent), #20 Peru (up 10.3 percent), and #22 Israel (down 12.3 percent).

Many in study abroad have pushed for more students to travel to "nontraditional" destinations outside Europe. Over all, about 53 percent of Americans studying abroad in 2012-13 chose to do so in Europe -- down from 63 percent 15 years earlier.

IIE estimates that 9.4 percent of all U.S undergraduates (including community college students) study abroad during their degree program, a figure that rises to 14.3 percent when only students studying for a bachelor’s degree are included.


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