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Diversification key to international higher education

International student mobility is a complex phenomenon with multiple variables interacting at the national, institutional and individual level. A deeper understanding of student mobility trends can help in not only shaping effective national policies but also informed institutional strategies.

According to the latest Institute of International Education, or IIE, Open Doors report, the number of international students at United States universities and colleges has continued to grow, reaching a record high of nearly 820,000 in the 2012-13 academic year.

In this blog, I focus on three key drivers of growth based on the year-to-year changes in international student enrolment by academic level, type of institution and source countries.

Higher revenue potential: Bachelor level enrolment becoming attractive

In this post-recession environment, many higher education institutions in the US have shown greater interest in recruiting more international students, especially at the bachelor degree level.

For example, new international undergraduate student enrolment at the University of California in Los Angeles grew seven-fold – from 142 to 1,012 – between 2008 and 2012, reflecting a keenness to attract international students who pay fees higher than out-of-state tuition for four years.

The following chart shows that the increase in bachelor degree students was previously more robust as compared to masters and doctoral level student growth.

Following the global recession, international student enrolment at the bachelor level slowed, but shortly after rebounded at a swift pace. In contrast, masters and doctoral level enrolments took much longer to recover from the economic downturn, only showing the first signs of a comeback in the autumn of 2012.

Big getting bigger: Doctorate-granting institutions driving growth

While there are 300 doctorate-granting institutions and over 700 masters-focused institutions, according to the Carnegie Classification, the number of international students enrolled in doctorate-granting institutions is nearly four-times more than those at masters-focused institutions.

Today, nearly two in three international students are enrolled in one of 108 research universities – signifying very high research activity – within the doctorate-granting classification.

This concentration of international students in large doctorate-granting institutions is becoming even more acute. As the chart below indicates, international student growth at doctorate-granting universities outpaces those at masters-focused and baccalaureate colleges.

Growth patterns indicate that while doctorate-granting institutions have been relatively immune to the impact of the global recession, international enrolment at the other two categories of institutions are growing at a slower pace.

Demand from China and Saudi Arabia: Over-dependence on a few countries
In recent years, American institutions’ need for more self-funded international students was met with a timely demand for US higher education among Chinese and Saudi students.

In 2008-09, Chinese and Saudi students formed one-sixth of total international students in the US. Within five years, one out of every three international students was from these two countries. This clearly indicates US higher education institutions’ over-dependency on a few source countries.

Driven by a higher ability to fund foreign education, the number of students from Saudi Arabia and China has grown consistently, while other leading source countries like South Korea and India are sending fewer students to the US than before.

As the chart shows, the Indian market continues to feel the severe impact of the recession, and South Korean numbers have stagnated due to higher education opportunities at home and demographic shifts.


In a post-recession environment, an increasing number of higher education institutions are interested in building their capacities to attract the next wave of international students.

We have seen some evidence of this in recent years with international student growth at the bachelor level, driven by China and Saudi Arabia, that is mostly absorbed by large doctorate-granting institutions.

Although the record high international student enrolment supports the sustained attractiveness of the US as a top destination, the increasing concentration of international students from a few countries to particular types of institutions and a particular level of education, highlights the importance of diversification in the internationalisation strategies of American higher education institutions.

US universities and colleges need to attract students from a wider range of source countries and identify and cultivate emerging markets.

At the same time, the growth of international enrolment should extend beyond doctorate-granting institutions and bachelor level students. Institutions must internalise these current growth patterns and proactively plan and invest to prepare for future shifts in the mobility of international students.

Dr Rahul Choudaha is the co-founder and CEO at DrEducation and http://interEDGE.org. He researches, speaks, writes, and consults on international student trends and its implications for institutional strategies and student success. Choudaha holds a doctorate in higher education from the University of Denver. He is reachable at info@DrEducation.com and @DrEducationBlog.
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