Indians fuel record growth in foreign student numbers

Enrolments of international students in United States colleges and universities climbed 10% last year to 974,936, the largest one-year rate of growth in 35 years, a report says.

China and India were the top two countries of origin, together accounting for nearly 45% of the total, says the report, released on Monday by the Institute of International Education, or IIE, a non-profit organisation that has been tracking student mobility trends for about 60 years.

The report, published annually in partnership with the US State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, is based on enrolments in the 2014-15 academic year.

Collectively, the students hailed from more than 200 countries, and they enrolled in institutions across all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. While California, New York and Texas enrol about a third of all students, international students "are discovering that there are many regions in the United States where they're welcome", said IIE President Allan Goodman in announcing the release of its annual Open Doors report.

IIE officials suggested the findings make a strong case for US colleges and universities as the unrivalled gold standard for higher education.

As a growing number of governments worldwide mount campaigns to attract more international students to their countries, the US market share is shrinking – even as the numbers of students remains far larger than the United Kingdom, the second-largest host country. (In 2013, the latest year for which comparisons are available, the UK attracted 481,050 international students; the US, 886,052, according to Project Atlas, a multi-country effort to track student mobility.)

The United States "is still the number one destination for students who seek a global education", says Rajika Bhandari, IIE’s deputy vice-president for research and evaluation. "This really points to the strength of US universities."

Nevertheless, other advocates for international education have urged the US government to strengthen immigration policies designed to boost international enrolments, arguing in part that international students pumped about US$30 billion into the US economy last year. About 64% of students pay for their schooling with family funds and 21% receive primary funding from a US institution, the Open Doors report says.

"Congress must pass common-sense, comprehensive immigration reform in order to improve the face we show to the world, build more meaningful relationships with future generations of foreign leaders, and not lose out on the economic, academic and cultural contributions from international students,” said Marlene Johnson, executive director of NAFSA, a US-based association for international educators.

In a companion report published Monday, NAFSA released state-by-state data showing how states benefit economically from international students.

Among highlights of the IIE's Open Doors report were:
  • • China fuelled the growth in undergraduate enrolments (124,552, up 13% from last year's 110,550), for the first time surpassing the numbers of Chinese graduate students pursuing degrees in the United States (120,331, up 4% from last year's 115,727. But overall undergraduate growth slowed this year (up 7.6%, to 398,824), compared with enrolments in graduate (up 9.8%), non-degree (17.8%) and Optional Practical Training programmes (13.5%).

  • • While China sent the largest numbers of students (304,040), up 10.8% from the previous year, the "real story is about the growth of students from India", Bhandari said. After several years of relatively flat growth, their numbers increased by 29.4% last year compared with the previous year, to 132,888, the highest rate of growth on record. Bhandari credited the increase in part to India's recovery from a steep devaluation of the rupee a few years ago, along with the attractiveness of US university graduate programmes and facilities in the STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – fields.

  • • The fastest regional growth occurred in Latin America and the Caribbean, boosted with help from a partnership called 100,000 Strong in the Americas, established in 2011 and led by the US State Department with governments in the region. The number of enrolments from Brazil jumped 78%, to 23,675, largely thanks to a scholarship programme offered through the Brazilian government.

  • • Enrolments dropped from a handful of countries, including South Korea, which ranked third with 63,710 students, down 6.4% from the previous year. Smaller drops were reported from Canada, Taiwan, Japan, Turkey, Hong Kong and Thailand.
The IIE data, collected from universities, comport with more current, real-time updates from the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which tracks and monitors student visa-holders who enter the United States. A quarterly report released in August showed that 1.05 million students were studying in the United States on student visas at that time.

More US students abroad

The report released on Monday also found that more US students are earning academic credit abroad, typically in short-term programmes. The data, based on the 2013-14 academic year, found a 5% increase, to 304,467.

The United Kingdom remains the top destination, attracting 38,250 US students. Italy, Spain, France and China round out the top five.

The release of the report kicks off a week-long initiative by the Education and State departments promoting the benefits of international exchange. The theme this year, which coincides with the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, is "Access for All”.

The State Department also last week was introducing a new Study Abroad Office that will manage some of its federal scholarship programmes for US students going abroad, including one for low-income students and another for language-related training.

Though the numbers of US students going abroad is increasing, they accounted for only10% of US college students, the report notes. About 25% were minorities, up from 16% a decade earlier.

"We're very happy with the numbers this year [but] there is still room for growth," said Marianne Craven, an acting deputy assistant secretary of state who participated in the briefing. Student flows in both directions will help to create "a more peaceful, prosperous and stable world", she said.