Still room to grow amid rise in international student numbers

International students continue to flock to American colleges and universities, two new reports have revealed. The number of overseas students at US tertiary institutions jumped by 6%, to an all-time high of nearly 765,000 in 2011, according to a just-published study from the Institute of International Education (IIE).

Meanwhile, the number of international graduate students enrolling for the first time at American institutions increased too, reported a survey from the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS), which measured an 8% increase in first-time enrolment of international students.

The annual Open Doors study from the IIE found that, as in previous years, the majority of international students came from China, with their number rising by 23% overall to 194,029 students.

Students from Saudi Arabia, funded by sizeable grants from the Saudi government, represented the greatest growth, with a 50% increase from 2010, from 22,704 to 34,139.

The report was conducted in partnership with the US Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and its finding signal the sixth consecutive year of growth in the total number of international students at American colleges and universities.

Part of the attraction for international students is the plethora of options available at American institutions, said Alan Goodman, president and CEO of IIE.

“America has such a diversity of institutions,” said Goodman. “The world is discovering there’s an awful lot here.”

Indian students, although representing the second largest segment of the international student population, dropped again this year, by 3.5%.

One example is Purdue University’s West Lafayette campus in Indiana, where overall international student enrolment rose but the university saw an 11% drop in applications from India in 2011, said Mark Smith, dean of Purdue’s graduate school.

California is still the top destination for international students, surpassing more than 100,000 students in 2011, followed by New York, Texas and Massachusetts.

But there were some institutions that saw their international student population plateau and even decrease in some cases. At Emory University in Atlanta, for example, overall enrolment of international students dropped, as did the number of students from China and India.

Lisa Tedesco, dean of Emory’s Laney Graduate School, said a thriving international student community is crucial in an increasingly globalised world, and the drop in enrolment is something Emory takes seriously.

“What it’s done is increase our efforts to double back and make sure we’re getting the word out to our international partners,” she said.

Graduate school growth

The CGS report found that international first-time enrolment increased across the country, particularly at private, not-for-profit institutions.

China led the pack with an increase of 22% in 2011, marking its seventh consecutive year of double-digit growth. Chinese students now make up 37% of all international graduate students in the US, according to the survey.

The top fields of study for graduate students were business and engineering.

The United States is still recognised as having some of the best graduate schools in the world, especially in business and science, said Jeffrey Allum, the council’s director of research and public policy and author of the 2012 report .

International students provide a huge economic boon for the US. According to a new report from the Washington DC-based Association of International Educators, or NAFSA, international students contributed nearly $22 billion to the US economy in the 2011-12 academic year.

But experts emphasise that the biggest benefit is the global perspective international students bring.

“The economy is becoming more and more global, as are companies and the workforce that supports those companies,” said Purdue’s Smith. “Students need to have exposure to different cultures and the ability to function effectively in a multicultural workforce.”

The trend is likely to continue, said Smith, at least until countries like China strengthen their own higher education institutions.

“China is trying to expand and improve its university system,” he said. “At some point, I imagine the Chinese government will start decreasing its support to students studying abroad. “

It’s not just a one-way street: American students are also traveling abroad to study. In the 2010-11 academic year, 273,996 students studied overseas for academic credit, a 1% increase from the previous year, according to the IIE report.

Although that number is at an all-time high, it is still “far too small”, said Goodman.

“It’s nowhere near enough in preparing our next generation for global citizenship,” he said. “We should be seeing as many students abroad as international students here.”

What’s needed is a change in mindset, said Goodman. Studying abroad is still viewed by Americans as a luxury, rather than as an essential component to a higher education degree.

Despite the strong growth, international students still make up less than 4% of total US higher education enrolment, the IIE report found. International students are present at only around 125 of the 4,000 accredited colleges and universities in the US, said Goodman, so there is still ample opportunity for growth.

“The US could easily double its number of international students,” he said. “We have lots of room.”