International students seek pathway to HE via schools

An Institute of International Education study has confirmed a rapidly growing number of international students enrolling in United States schools to boost their competitiveness ahead of entering higher education. American universities might need to turn more recruitment attention to foreign students on their doorsteps.

Of 73,019 international students in secondary education last October, 67% were enrolled for a full diploma – and 57% of those students were from Asia, 28% from Europe and 10% from Latin America and the Caribbean.

The number of international students enrolled directly in US secondary programmes more than tripled from 2004 to 2013, against only 13% growth in exchange student numbers, according to “Charting New Pathways to Higher Education: International secondary students in the United States”, a research brief published last Tuesday.

“While some international secondary students engage in exchange programmes and return to their home countries to complete their secondary education, many international students are now seeking to earn high school diplomas abroad to position themselves as more competitive applicants for higher education institutions in the host or destination countries,” it says.

The study

The aim of the study by Christine A Farrugia of the Center for Academic Mobility Research at the New York-based Institute of International Education, IIE, was to describe international secondary students in America – their number, where they are from and where they study – as well as the relationship between international secondary and higher education enrolment.

“Anecdotally, we have been hearing about how the presence of international students in US schools has been growing. But there has not been any thorough assessment of the trend,” says Dr Rajika Bhandari, deputy vice-president for research and evaluation and director of the Center for Academic Mobility Research at the IIE.

There were clear reasons for studying the trend. “One is that if the numbers are growing, this has implications for international enrolment at the university level in the US,” Bhandari told University World News.

Knowing trends at the school level would help to make projections about the sorts of shifts that might happen in international enrolment at the post-secondary level. Also:

“US institutions are going to need to think about where they recruit and how they are recruiting international students because it is no longer going to be the case that all potential international students are based overseas. Some of them might be based right here at home in secondary schools.

“The research is important not just for the US. If mobility at the secondary level is going to serve as a pathway into higher education, then it is something we should be looking at globally.”

“We took several different approaches to understanding the trend,” Farrugia told University World News. Information was drawn from sources including the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System of the Department of Homeland Security, the National Center for Education Statistics’ Common Core of Data and the Private School Survey.

Interviews were conducted with professionals involved in the mobility of international secondary students. Comparisons between educational levels were made using the IIE’s Open Doors® project, and comparative statistics from other Anglophone countries enabled a global picture of international secondary student mobility to emerge.

With 4.3 million mobile higher education students globally, and the number predicted by the OECD to rise to eight million by 2025, the research could also help to predict future trends in international enrolment at the post-secondary level and assist schools with planning.

The research identified five key findings: students from Asia dominate both secondary and post-secondary international enrolments; most international secondary students in the US are pursuing diplomas rather than exchange; high schools focus on either diploma or exchange students, reducing potential diversity; 95% of international students are in private schools; and the US is the largest Anglophone host of international secondary students.

Who studies in US schools?

International students from Asia constitute most international students in the US at both the secondary (57%) and post-secondary (64%) levels, with China the leading country of origin in both groups and South Korea and Japan among the top five.

Slightly more than 44% of international students come from China and South Korea at the secondary school level, and 37% at the post-secondary level. Other leading senders of Asian high school students include Vietnam and Thailand.

“Students from East Asia are highly motivated to invest resources in education abroad in order to receive what they believe will be a high quality, Western education that will ultimately prepare them for successful careers,” says the research brief.

Expanding economies in China, South Korea, Vietnam and Taiwan enable growing middle-classes to fund their children to study overseas, many at younger ages than previously.

“In the face of competitive admissions processes to US higher education institutions, Asian students may perceive that studying abroad at the secondary level can provide them with the academic, language and cultural skills to make them stand out to admissions officers at the most elite universities in the US and other Western countries.”

The study found that the mobility patterns of some students were notably different at the secondary and post-secondary levels. India and Saudi Arabia send large numbers of post-secondary students to the US – 12% and 5% of all foreign students respectively – but negligible numbers (together less than 1%) of students at the secondary level.

“In the case of India, where 56% of international students in the US study at the graduate level, there appears to be little interest among students in US secondary education.” Farrugia postulates that this could be because India’s education system in urban areas sufficiently prepares students to compete successfully in postgraduate study abroad.

The strong presence of Saudi students in US higher education flows from the Saudi government’s generous post-secondary scholarship programme. Few Saudis pursue self-funded or exchange study at the school level.

Europe is the second leading region of origin, at 28% – though in higher education Europeans constitute just over 10% of international students. Germany, Spain, Italy and Norway are the top four sending countries. Most European students – 77% – are on exchange programmes that typically last one or two semesters.

Students from Germany make up almost 10% of all international students in US high schools which, the study says, is “related to the high rates of outbound mobility of German students”.

“Secondary students from Latin America and the Caribbean account for almost 10% of international students. This proportion is roughly equivalent to their representation in higher education institutions, which stands at just over 8%,” says the research brief. Most Latin American students in US secondary schools – 70% – are from Mexico and Brazil.

“The enrolment patterns of Latin American secondary students vary by place of origin. Most Mexican students (83%) are directly enrolled in US schools, while most Brazilian students (61%) participate in exchange programmes.”

Students from Canada and Sub-Saharan Africa each comprise just under 2% of all international secondary students, while they have around 3% representation in higher education. Less than 1% of students come from Oceania. Despite quite high representation of students from the Middle East and North Africa in US higher education, they comprise less than 1% of secondary students.

Diplomas versus exchange

Traditionally, most international high school students have been on exchanges, particularly from Europe and South America. A second key finding of the study is that today most international secondary students – about 67% of the 73,019 in 2013 – are pursuing diplomas with only 33% on exchange programmes.

“There appear to be clear regional patterns, with students from certain world regions preferring one form of study over another.

“Students from Asia, particularly those from China and South Korea, constitute the majority of the nearly 49,000 secondary students who are seeking US high school diplomas, with Chinese students alone accounting for 46% of these students,” the study says.

Exchange students are mostly from Europe – 66% of roughly 24,000 exchange students – and 9% come from Latin America. By contrast, only 9% of tertiary international students are engaged in short-term non-degree study.

The 73,019 international secondary and 819,644 international post-secondary students in the US, represent 0.5% and 3.9% of all students respectively. This, says the study, indicates that US institutions have “a large capacity to host more international students at all levels”.

School focus

A third key finding is that US high schools typically cater for different kinds of international students.

“They are really focusing either on exchange students, mostly coming from Europe, or they’re focusing on students who are coming for diplomas, the ones coming from Asia,” Farrugia told University World News.

“A caution for schools to keep in mind is to promote the diversity of international students and to engage fully in international exchange throughout the world. It is very important to balance those two types of students and to attract students from many different regions.”

Understanding the differing demographics between inbound exchange and diploma students is necessary “to strengthen all forms of secondary student mobility and to preserve the specific mission of exchange programmes”, the study argues.

Where international secondary students study

The fourth key finding is that the vast majority – 95% – of the 58,632 international diploma students attend private schools, including independent and religiously-affiliated schools. US visa policies restrict international students to no more than a year of study in public schools.

In contrast, post-secondary international students are more heavily concentrated in public institutions, which host 65% of all students in the US.

“Many public higher education institutions in the US are large research universities that have the capacity to host substantial numbers of international students. As well, post-secondary students do not face the same restrictions on length of study in public institutions as do secondary students.”

The geographic distribution of secondary students is related to availability of international programmes in schools, and perceptions of students and their families of desirable places to live, the study found.

While there is no direct evidence from the study, Farrugia told University World News: “There is a perception among students that the higher education application process is very competitive, especially for the top universities.

“And so international students who are coming for diplomas are concerned to come into high schools that have a very strong curriculum where they can get advanced placement courses, and schools with a good placement record for higher education. They are looking at academic features of the high school experience.”

Most international secondary students study in the Northeast (34%), followed by the West (27%) and South (26%). Only 13% of international secondary students study in the Midwest.

California, New York and several other Eastern states host most of the diploma students, while the Midwest hosts the largest proportion of exchange students (35% in 2013).

“The secondary and post-secondary sectors share six of the top 10 states hosting international students, indicating that these states are active in international education at all levels.

“California and New York are the top two host states of international students at both the secondary and post-secondary levels,” says the research brief, with California hosting 18% of secondary and 14% of post-secondary students, and New York hosting 8% of secondary and 11% of post-secondary students. Other states with large numbers at both levels include Florida, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Texas and Michigan.

Variations in places of origin by state are explained by factors such as geographic proximity and exchange programmes in specific countries. “Ethiopian students represent the majority of international students in Mississippi (58%), driven by their enrolments in just one school.”

Brazil is the leading place of origin of secondary students in Montana (32%) and students from Japan constitute 40% of international secondary students in Hawaii (40%). Mexico is the leading country of origin in Texas, representing 37% of international students.

Comparative perspectives

The fifth key finding – that America is the largest Anglophone host of international secondary students – is attributed to the size of the school sector and its accessibility for international students. Another factor might be the US’ many immigrant communities and diaspora representing international secondary students’ home countries.

International secondary student numbers are rising in many Anglophone countries, the study found in a comparative look at Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom.

“Students from Asia, especially from China and South Korea, are highly represented across all Anglophone countries. The high levels of interest in obtaining a secondary education abroad and the willingness and ability to pay for it has made China and South Korea strong markets for recruiting by secondary schools seeking to enrol international students.”

German students dominate exchange student proportions in all of the Anglophone countries, which host nearly 84% of the 19,000 German high school students abroad.

Historical ties and geography impact the student enrolment patterns across host countries.

There were 16,693 international students in Australian secondary schools in 2013, the great majority – nearly 77% – from Asia, with Chinese students accounting for almost half the total followed by students from Vietnam (10%) and South Korea (8%).

Canada, the research brief points out, has been actively promoted as a study destination for all education sectors and as a result the number of international students grew by 50% in the five years to 2012. In 2013 there were 23,757 international secondary students.

Most came from Asia, with China (31%) and South Korea (18%) the leading places of origin. Other top places of origin in Asia were Japan (4%), the Philippines (3%) and Hong Kong (2%). Canada is also popular with Mexican students (5%), Germans (4%) and Brazilians (3%).

There were not overall figures for the United Kingdom, but in 2013 in 1,223 private schools there were 25,912 international school students, representing 5% percent of all students. Some 96% were at the secondary level and nearly 52% in years 12 and 13 of schooling.

Hong Kong is the leading place of origin, with 22% of all international school students, while European countries account for 35% – with the largest proportions from Germany and Russia (both 8%) – and just over 6% come from Africa with most (4%) from Nigeria.


“At both the secondary and post-secondary levels the size, quality, diversity and openness of the US education system makes the country an attractive destination for international students,” says the brief. There are growing opportunities for international secondary students, expanding pathways to US higher education.

The rising number of international students at the secondary level means more international recruitment into higher education may be done locally, particularly from private schools.

“Given their prior exposure to US classrooms and successful adjustment to US life, these students may have academic, language and cultural skills that can not only contribute to their success on campus, but can also serve as a potential resource to help ease the adjustment of their peer international students who might be entering the US for the first time."