U.S. Will Be Fastest-Growing Foreign-Student Destination, Report Predicts

October 08, 2013

The United States is projected to be the largest and fastest-growing destination for foreign students over the next decade, according to a report released on Tuesday by the British Council's Education Intelligence global-research service.

But American universities' heavy reliance on students from China and India could make them vulnerable if an economic slowdown in those and other emerging countries put a college degree—particularly a costly foreign diploma—out of the reach of many families. India and China are predicted to account for fully two-thirds of the growth in international students at American institutions from 2011 to 2024, the research shows.

Worldwide, the two countries are expected to contribute 35 percent of total foreign-student growth during the forecast period.

The report, "The Future of the World's Mobile Students to 2024," examines the demographic and economic drivers of higher-education enrollments in 56 countries. Its authors project that overall enrollments will climb by 32 million, or 1.4 percent per year, to 196 million globally.

By 2024, nearly 3.9 million students will study outside their home countries, up from about three million in 2011, according to forecasts by the council, the British government's educational and cultural arm. (Because of data availability, that figure may include students who are not citizens of the country in which they are studying even if they already were living there.)

One-third of those globally mobile students will hail from either India or China.

While the number of Chinese students going overseas will continue to grow, the report suggests, the rate of increase is likely to slow compared with recent years. From 2009 to 2011, the number of outbound Chinese students shot up by 150,000, although an earlier British Council study had forecast a far-smaller increase, of just 13,000.

In the next decade, the number of Chinese students pursuing an international degree is expected to climb by a more modest 132,000, to 855,000.

Impact of Economic Outlook

Even with slowing growth, China will remain the largest source of foreign students, sending more than double the number abroad than India. Saudi Arabia, Nepal, Nigeria, and Turkey are among other countries expected to see sizable expansion over the next decade in their number of students going overseas.

But a decline in the college-age population could depress enrollments of students from South Korea and Japan, which traditionally have been significant sources of international students in the United States.

The United States, Britain, and Australia are predicted to continue to be the most popular destinations for foreign students. China and India, along with Saudi Arabia, will fuel the American growth, the council forecasts.

One question mark is the economic outlook in those countries. Although India and China largely avoided the global recession, their economies have begun to cool. The report projects the impact of further weakening in economic growth. Under that scenario, the number of internationally mobile students would drop by 52,000 worldwide and by 15,000 in the United States.

That estimate, the authors note, accounts for only an economic slowdown "as opposed to a more severe recessionary impact."

Indeed, the report offers a possible preview of the impact the economy can have on foreign-student enrollments. The cautionary tale centers on Australia, which an earlier British Council report predicted would be the fastest-growing market for foreign students—not the United States. In fact, the number of Indian students at Australian universities plummeted from 27,000 in 2009 to 14,000 in 2011, driven, in part, by the rising cost of studying and living in Australia as the value of the Indian rupee fell sharply against a strong Australian dollar.

There is another variable that muddies predictions: While countries like the United States report data on foreign students, by country of origin, to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the international group does not collect such information for China, India, and other emerging economies. And China, for one, has been making a push not just to send its students abroad but also to attract overseas students to its universities.

Thus, the report warns, its forecasts could overestimate the growth of international enrollments in traditional markets while not "fully accounting for the competition" from up-and-coming destinations.