Overseas Students Pour Into Some American Campuses, but Other Colleges Haven’t Kept Up With the Growth

November 16, 2015

Noah Berger for The Chronicle
The number of foreign students at American colleges rose 73 percent during the past decade. But only 10 percent of colleges accounted for most of the surge.
The United States is experiencing an international-student boom. But that boom is not being shared equally by all colleges.

The number of foreign students at American colleges rose 10 percent in 2014-15, according to new data from the Institute of International Education. Over the past decade, the increase has been a whopping 73 percent.

A Chronicle analysis shows, however, that the influx has helped international enrollments skyrocket at some institutions, while others have fewer students now than 10 years ago. Less than half of the institutions, 44 percent, kept pace with the national growth. And just 10 percent of colleges accounted for nearly 70 percent of the surge between 2005-6 and 2014-15.

"No question," says Rahul Choudaha, an expert on global student mobility, "the big are getting bigger."

This imbalance, Mr. Choudaha and others say, could have important implications.

Institutions that haven’t kept up could find the competition to recruit overseas even tougher. This could mean American students on those campuses could miss out on the diverse perspectives that international students bring. On the other hand, colleges that attract a significant portion of their student body from abroad risk becoming overreliant on foreign tuition dollars, which could leave them vulnerable to shifting global trends.

The Chronicle examined enrollments for 1,236 institutions with at least 10 student-visa holders, as reported to the Institute of International Education. An individual college’s share of the foreign-student population was determined by calculating the number of international students it enrolled per 1,000 such students in the United States. For example, the fastest-growing institution during the period examined, Northeastern University, enrolled 1,980 foreign students in 2005-6, or 3.5 of every 1,000 foreign students at American colleges. By 2014-15, the university had 10,559 international students, close to 11 of every 1,000 in the United States.

To get a sense of just how remarkable Northeastern’s growth has been, consider this: Just 46 colleges added at least one international student per 1,000 during the same time.

Joseph E. Aoun, Northeastern’s president, is fond of telling stories of the cross-cultural friendships formed on his campus (the Turkish and Armenian students living harmoniously as roommates, for instance), but he is quick to emphasize that "our goal is not to get more international students. Our goal is to globalize the university."

In this, Northeastern has something in common with two of the other institutions that have seen the largest gains in market share, Arizona State University (No. 2) and New York University (No. 4). All three have aggressive, entrepreneurial leaders determined brand their institution a "global university."

‘Pipeline Is Already There’

Those universities may stand out as up-and-comers, but they do share a trait with nearly every one of their most rapidly growing competitors — they are large research universities. Because of their size, doctoral-granting institutions often have the easiest time absorbing additional students. And they have established channels for recruiting international students.

"The pipeline is already there," says Fanta Aw, president of Nafsa: Association of International Educators. A university’s reputation for graduate education can help, Ms. Aw says, even when it seeks to attract undergraduates. Graduate powerhouses such as Michigan State University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have seen sharp undergraduate growth.

"The perception of quality at the graduate level trickles down," says Ms. Aw, who is assistant vice president for campus life at American University.

That said, being a research university is no guarantee of growth in international students. Indeed, half of the colleges with the largest declines in market share are also doctoral institutions.

Colleges that grant only bachelor’s degrees, meanwhile, most closely matched the national rate of growth in foreign-student numbers, neither gaining nor losing ground.

For Jeff Allum, assistant vice president for research and policy analysis at the Council of Graduate Schools, the distribution of students is largely about the academic programs that a college offers. Foreign students cluster in certain fields: Nearly 45 percent enroll in science, technology, engineering, and math. Twenty percent pursue business degrees.

At the University of Texas at Dallas, most international students gravitate toward engineering and computer science, degrees that can help them get jobs back home or in the Dallas region’s fast-growing tech sector, says Cristen Casey, assistant vice president for international programs. The university more than doubled its market share over the past decade, going from 3.4 foreign students per 1,000 to 7.2.

But the factors that draw students to American campuses don’t give the full picture. Colleges themselves may have a strong incentive to increase their foreign recruitment, often for reasons that reflect domestic realities as much as international ambitions.

With state support for public higher education falling, institutions such as the University of Washington and those in the University of California system stepped up their recruitment of foreign students, who pay higher tuition rates, to make up shortfalls. Two-thirds of the top growing institutions in the Chronicle study were public colleges.

Noah Berger for The Chronicle
International House welcomes foreign students at the U. of California at Berkeley. The university system has stepped up its recruitment of foreign students, who pay higher tuition rates.

Some states have balked at such strategies, though. In Texas, a law passed in 2011 requires that 90 percent of the freshman class at the University of Texas at Austin be from the state. As a result, the university’s overseas undergraduate enrollment has barely budged, despite a wealth of well-qualified applicants, says Teri Albrecht, director of international student and scholar services. "We’re watching our market share slide down the rankings."

No institution lost more ground over the past decade, in fact, than Texas. Ten years ago, 9.6 of every 1,000 foreign students chose the university; today, 6.1 do.

Can such universities play catch-up with their peers? Ahmad Ezzeddine hopes so.

Mr. Ezzeddine is associate vice president for educational outreach and international programs at Wayne State University, in Detroit. A decade ago, Wayne State was among the top 25 colleges in foreign-student enrollment. Then two of Detroit’s major automakers declared bankruptcy, followed by the city itself. International students, once lured by the promise of internships and the potential of jobs in the auto industry, stopped applying. Parents in Delhi and Beijing worried aloud about the safety of their children.

Detroit’s economy is on the rebound, and Mr. Ezzeddine hopes Wayne State will be, too. In the past few years, overseas enrollment has begun to rise again. Even so, only the University of Texas saw its market share drop more, and it will be some time before Wayne State gets back to where it was.

The climb may be even more difficult for institutions with small numbers of foreign students. The big do grow bigger, says Benjamin Waxman, chief executive of Intead, a firm that advises colleges on their global marketing. They "don’t have to justify why they’re a valid place to consider," he says. "There’s a buyer’s confidence."

Still, fast-growing colleges must increase their academic and student-support services to match international enrollments. Otherwise, Mr. Waxman says, "it’s like driving with only two tires on the car."

And, of course, high fliers could see their growth sag if they rely disproportionately on recruiting from only a few countries. Nationally, nearly 60 percent of the foreign-student growth in past 10 years has come from China. What might happen if the Chinese stop coming?

In the most recent reporting, China’s numbers again climbed. So did international enrollments overall. And much of that growth continued to accrue to a relatively small number of colleges. What’s most disturbing about this uneven distribution, says Fanta Aw, the Nafsa president, is that it undermines one of the hallmarks of American education. "Even though we keep talking about the diversity of institutions in the United States, that narrative has not translated," she says. "In the minds of the international students, they’re not seeing that diversity."

Ariana Giorgi contributed to this article.

Karin Fischer writes about international education, colleges and the economy, and other issues. She’s on Twitter @karinfischer, and her email address is