Almost One-Third of All Foreign Students in U.S. Are From China

More than a quarter of a million Chinese students (287,260, to be exact) hold active U.S. student visas, which is more than the number of students from Europe, South America, Africa, Australia, and elsewhere in North America combined. In fact, Chinese students account for 29 percent of all foreign students studying in the United States.


China sends more than twice as many students to American colleges, universities, and postsecondary vocational programs as does India, which, with more than 105,000 students, is the second-largest source country. South Korea comes in third, with 91,693.

The data are from a quarterly report released last week by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and are accurate as of January 15.

It might not seem surprising that the world’s most populous countries send the most students to the United States, but the change over the last 15 years is striking.

The proportion of foreign students in the United States who are from China has increased more than sixfold in that time. In 1997, China accounted for just 4 percent of student-visa recipients. About one-third as many student visas were issued in China as were issued in both South Korea and Japan. And China sent about one-fifth as many students to the United States as Europe did.

And yet, even with the growth since then, the United States still educates a very small proportion of Chinese students. In 2010 there were almost 134 million people in China ages 20 to 24 (the closest we can get to “college age”), according to the latest estimates from the United Nations. So the number of Chinese students at American universities represents only about two-tenths of 1 percent of college-age Chinese citizens.

Still, Chinese students are slightly overrepresented at American colleges in terms of global population ratios. College-age Chinese adults make up about 20 percent of all college-age adults in the world (outside of the United States), but represent almost 30 percent of all foreign students in the United States. International students accounted for just under 4 percent of all students in the United States in 2012-13, according to the Institute of International Education.

Some more interesting tidbits on student-visa holders in the United States:

It may not come as a surprise that California, with its proximity to the Pacific Rim, is home to the largest percentage of students from Asia: 16 percent of Asian students in the United States are studying in California. Likewise, it is probably to be expected that Florida plays host to 17 percent of all students from South America, the largest concentration of students from that continent.

But here’s a less obvious fact: Students from Africa are most likely to be studying in Texas. Thirteen percent of all African students are in the Lone Star State.

Three of the five colleges with the most foreign students are private. Here are all five, with the number of foreign students and the percent of all students who are from abroad:

University Number of foreign students Percent foreign students*
University of Southern California 10,487 26%
Purdue University 9,673 24%
University of Illinois 9,605 22%
New York University 9,247 21%
Columbia University 9,201 35%

*Percentages are estimates based on Fall 2012 enrollment data.

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