How the international student population in the US is changing
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How the international student population in the US is changing

How the international student population in the US is changing

Every year, thousands of students from all over the world head to US colleges and universities to pursue their degrees. International students are now a standard feature in most US higher education institutions. For the last four years, they have numbered more than one million strong across US campuses.

But this wasn’t always the case. International education is a sector that’s constantly evolving, from the total number of students enrolled to other features like the most popular subjects.

The recently published Institute of International Education (IIE) annual Open Doors report allows students and educators to track the trends and changes to the US higher education sector, thanks to the wealth of information and data it has.


Here are the key takeaways from the report:

1. The number of international students has multiplied 43 times since seven decades ago


In 1948/49, there were only 25,464 international students enrolled in US colleges and universities. Today, that figure has ballooned to 1,095,299, an all-time high, making it the fourth consecutive year the US has hosted more than one million international students.

The biggest growth happened in the last 10 years, when the sector saw a 38.6 percent increase in international student enrolment.

2. Increase in undergraduate, graduate and OPT programme enrolments

The last decade saw the number of international students enrolled in all three levels increase. However, from 2014/15 onwards, OPT international enrolment spiked, surpassing the increase in undergraduate and graduate studies.

“Policy changes that allow STEM students to remain in the US on Optional Practical Training opportunities for 36 months after the completion of their studies likely continue to drive the increase in students on OPT programmes, which increased by 9.6 percent to 223,085,” the IIE wrote in a press statement.

3. China, India and South Korea remain top countries of origin


China remained the largest source of international students in the US in 2018/19, with 369,548 students in undergraduate, graduate, non-degree and optional practical training (OPT) programmes, making it the 10th consecutive year it has achieved this feat. This marks a 1.7 percent increase from the previous year.

India (202,014, +2.9 percent), South Korea (52,250, -4.2 percent), Saudi Arabia (37,080, -16.5 percent) and Canada (26,122, +0.8 percent) round out the top five.

4. STEM reigns as the most popular field of study

More than half (51.6 percent) of international students in the US pursued STEM fields in 2018/19. Engineering is the most popular, comprising around one-fifth (21.1 percent) of all international enrolments.

Business and Management is no longer the second-largest field of study for international students. Instead, it’s now Math and Computer Science, which grew by 9.4 percent compared to the previous year.

Among the least popular subjects are Education (1.5 percent), Legal Studies and Law Enforcement (1.5 percent) and Agriculture (1.3 percent). Compared to the previous year, Business and Management, Education and Intensive English experienced the sharpest decline in international enrolment.

5. Emerging economies dominate the top 25 countries of origin


Emerging market countries showed some of the strongest growth during this period, with Bangladeshi students increasing by 205 percent from 2008/9, along with Nigeria (114 percent), Vietnam (90 percent) and Brazil (83 percent).

All of these countries are in the list of Top 25 countries of origin, together with China, India, Taiwan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Nepal, Brazil, Iran, Kuwait, Malaysia, Venezuela, Colombia and Pakistan.

6. The Californian dream

California, New York and Texas remain the three most popular study destinations for international students in the 2018/9 academic year, with 161,693, 124,277 and 81,893 international students respectively. However, only New York saw an increase compared to the previous year.

Only these three states, as well as Massachusetts, Illinois and Pennsylvania, host over 50,000 international students each.

7. New York University hosts the largest number of international students


With 19,605 international students, NYU takes the crown for the most diverse campus in the US. This is followed by the University of Southern California, Los Angeles (16,340), Northeastern University, Boston (16,075), Columbia University (15,897) and University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (13,497).

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