International-Student Numbers Continue Record-Breaking Growth

November 17, 2014

American campuses have never been more international.

In 2013-14, colleges in the United States enrolled a record 886,052 foreign students, an increase of 8 percent over the previous year, according to the latest "Open Doors" report from the Institute of International Education.

While the boom in students from abroad is longstanding and well known, dig deeper into the data and you’ll find several trends that have implications for how colleges recruit overseas and create opportunities for American students to study abroad.

One-Third Are Chinese

China remains the dynamo of global-student mobility, at times driving up international enrollments all by itself. In 2013-14, Chinese students accounted for almost 60 percent of the foreign-student growth at American colleges. Think about it this way: One of every three international students in the United States holds a Chinese passport.

Never in the institute’s nearly 65 years of tracking foreign-student trends has a single source country been so dominant.

Such a high proportion of students from a single country has raised alarms about the fallout if the current boom were to go bust.

But setting such concerns aside, it’s worth noting that the demographics of the Chinese-student population in the United States are changing. For one, the students are getting younger. A decade ago, more than 80 percent of the Chinese students in the United States were at the graduate level. Today the split between undergraduate and graduate students is nearly 50-50.

That shift is due in part to an explosion in undergraduate enrollment, as well as to slowing growth at the graduate level. For the first time, the Council of Graduate Schools reports that graduate enrollments from China fell this fall. What’s more, there are signs that the population may be becoming even more baby-faced—some 23,500 Chinese nationals are enrolled in American high schools.

Shi Wang, who goes by Shiny, is head of counseling at the international division of Beijing No. 4 High School. He thinks that as dissatisfaction mounts with the country’s test-centric educational system, more Chinese students could go abroad—and at a younger age—to position themselves for admission to top American colleges.

If greater numbers of Chinese students come to the United States for high school, that could change international admissions for American colleges, essentially allowing them to do foreign recruitment at home. It could also mitigate what has been a major issue for American colleges amid the China surge: helping Chinese students adjust culturally and academically to campus life.

India Rebounds

Until the China wave began breaking on American shores, India was the largest source of international students. For the past three years, however, Indian enrollments have declined.

The newest data show a halt to the slide. The number of students from India, which remains the second-largest source country, is up 6 percent.

What may account for the rebound: The rupee is regaining value against foreign currencies, making overseas study affordable once again. Britain, historically a top destination for Indian students, has fallen in popularity. And American colleges may be getting savvier about recruiting in this diverse, complex country.

Bryant O. Priester, assistant director for international undergraduate recruitment at Purdue University, which ranks fifth among American universities for the size of its international population, has focused on attracting Indian students who will enroll and do well there, not merely on greater numbers of applicants.

One strategy: attending college fairs with local alumni who can share their experiences firsthand.

Mr. Priester is also among recruiters now looking outside of India for top Indian students. He recently returned from a recruitment trip to the Middle East, where he met with some of the growing number of Indians who study at universities in the region or whose families work there.

Government Scholarships Are Growing

Take a look at the three countries that had the largest percentage growth in international students, and you might notice a trend. Kuwait (43 percent), Brazil (22 percent), and Saudi Arabia (21 percent) all have major government-sponsored scholarship programs to send students abroad.

Although students from the three countries make up a relatively small share of the overall international population (Saudi Arabia has the largest, at a little more than 6 percent), these nations are an increasingly important recruitment market for American colleges, in no small measure because they pay their students’ way.

Eighty-six percent of the Saudi students who study abroad and 68 percent of the Kuwaitis go to America. Just under half of the Brazilians do.

On Student Visas but Not Studying

The fast-growing group of student-visa holders aren’t seeking bachelor’s degrees or Ph.D.’s. They aren’t learning to speak in English. In fact, they aren’t actually studying at all.

They are part of a program known as Optional Practical Training, a designation that allows international students to temporarily stay and work in the United States after graduation.

More than one in 10 international students is on OPT, as the program is known, up 12 percent, the fourth consecutive annual increase.

Part of the growth is simply a result of the boom in international students, says Rajika Bhandari, deputy vice president for research and evaluation at the Institute of International Education. OPT is popular with foreign graduates whose employment options are limited during their studies and seize the opportunity to gain work experience for the job market when they return home.

The program is popular with some employers as well, particularly in Silicon Valley.

Having fallen short in efforts to change visa rules to make it easier for foreign graduates to stay in the United States, the Obama administration has extended the time that students in high-demand science and technology fields can remain in the country on OPT, from 12 to 29 months.

The program has its critics, however, including Sen. Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican, who says students on OPT may be doing unauthorized work or could pose a national-security risk. A report by the Government Accountability Office this year said the federal government should do more to identify the potential risks.

Study Abroad Is Changing

Compared with the robust growth in international enrollments, participation in study abroad by American students appears sluggish.

The number of students going overseas inched up by just 2 percent in 2012-13. As a share of the overall U.S. college population, their numbers remain stubbornly tiny.

Small but meaningful shifts, however, are noticeable in terms of which students go abroad and what they study.

Over the past decade, the share of nonwhite students going abroad has crept upward to about one-quarter of the total. And for the first time this year, more students going abroad are studying science, math, or engineering than the social sciences.

However, the data suggest that getting more students in the so-called STEM fields overseas does little to reverse the longtime trend of low male participation in education abroad. Over the past 10 years, in fact, men are the only "minority" group in the "Open Doors" report to actually decrease their rate of international study.