International student enrolment rise is fastest in 40 years
The 1,057,188 international students studying in the US include almost 300,000 who enrolled for the first time, a cohort that grew by 14% following the 80% increase in 2021-22 that was fuelled by the end of travel restrictions following the easing of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Open Doors 2023 Report on International Education Exchange published by the Institute of International Education this week.
Although the number of Chinese students declined by 0.2%, China’s 289,526 students studying in the United States remained the single largest national group.
Enrolment of Indian students grew by a stunning 35%, bringing the number of students from the sub-continent studying in the US to 268,923, the largest number ever for this second largest national group.
The number of students from other countries also rose, including Brazilians by 41%, Mexicans by 36%, Nigerians by 46%, Nepalese by 41%, Japanese by 29%, British by 30% and Canadians by 38%, says the Fall 2023 Snapshot of International Student Enrollment, released in tandem with Open Doors by the Institute of International Education (IIE).
The number of new international undergraduates grew by 5.2% (bringing the total to 95,681) while graduate students grew by 15.3% or 168,920). Fully 36% of new international students were classified as ‘non-degree’ students.
Notwithstanding the fears international educators voiced during the height of the pandemic about whether international education would rebound, these figures signalled to IIE CEO Dr Allan E Goodman that “international education is resilient and also integral to universities and countries looking to support innovation, collaboration and peace”.
The figures also show, said Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs Lee Satterfield, that “students from around the world have chosen the United States as the top destination for international study”.
He said the Biden administration believes that “international education is a vehicle that promotes peace and cross-cultural connections and provides the tools necessary to address the shared challenges of our time”.
“It continues to shape the leaders of the future, both here at home and abroad, and we look forward to doing even more to attract international students to the United States and serve as the global leader in international education,” he said.
What international students bring
Satterfield’s comments echoed what Fanta Aw, the executive director and CEO of Washington DC-based NAFSA: Association of International Educators, told University World News last week when NAFSA and 11 other organisations, including the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration and World Education Services, launched the US for Success Coalition, which is dedicated to turning around the overall decline in international students from 25% to 12%.
In 1998-99, when the United States accounted for 25% of international students worldwide, there were 700,000 international students studying in American colleges and universities. According to UNESCO, in 2023 there are 6.4 million international students.
When asked what international students bring to a classroom and to a campus, Aw told University World News: “I would say there are a couple of things … One is learning in the classroom. But, as one who was responsible for campus life at a private institution for an extended period of time, I also know that a lot of learning takes place outside the classroom, whether it's in the residence hall or what happens when people are breaking bread.
“What happens in those places becomes incredibly important to the work that takes place, the intercultural learning that takes place. International students are critical to how we think about the complex ways in which we can solve, in interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary ways, the issues that are out there. As well, they are bridges to their nations. And, as bridges to their countries, they are cultural translators for them.”
By way of example, Aw pointed to students who come from countries that are presently most impacted by climate change.
“I think what these students bring to our campuses is not only a reality check but, in the case specifically of climate change and some of the political problems we talk about, they bring a sense of urgency to it, their lived experience. They bring a lens from which they see these issues, and the manner in which they can speak about those issues, not only on an intellectual level, but really from the perspective of the human dimension,” said Aw.
Growth by institutional type and fields
International students are concentrated in doctorate-granting universities because of the large number of these students seeking advanced degrees. Accordingly, more than 819,000 international students are enrolled in these universities, a 10.9% increase over the previous year.
The number of international students studying at colleges that grant masters degrees grew by 21.6%, bringing the total number of students to 128,514.
Colleges that grant BAs saw the least growth, 2.6%, bringing these colleges’ international student cohort to 36,489.
Junior or community colleges grew by 7.2%. These schools, many of which serve as feeder schools into state university BA programmes and many of which provide technical training in such areas as heating, ventilation, and air conditioning; and welding or associate bachelor business degrees in areas such as supply chain management or accounting, enrolled 52,622 students.
Of the academic fields, maths and computer science registered the greatest gain at 19.9% (and within this, maths and statistics grew by only 2.6%); intensive English grew by 41.4%. Engineering was second, with an increase of 7.8%, while business and management came next with a 6.8% increase.
Several disciplines that have seen steep declines in enrolment over the past decade grew at respectable paces.
Social sciences grew by 9.2%. The subgroup that grew the largest in this sector was public administration and social service professions by 25%. History grew by 5.1% and psychology by almost 10%. As a whole, the humanities grew by 3.8%, but within this figure, philosophy and religious studies registered a 10.9% increase, meaning that there were 3,146 international students studying philosophy and religious studies. Communications and journalism grew by 11.4%.
Who funds international students?
The Open Doors 2023 Report provides data on how international students’ education is funded. Fifty-six percent of international students either fund their education by themselves or have help from their families; some 82% of undergraduates are in this category while 61% of graduate students pay for their education themselves or with help from their families.
Foreign governments sponsor only 2.2% of the international student cadre, while 0.7% of these students are sponsored by private funds from outside the United States.
American universities and colleges financially support 19.7% of their international students: 10.8% of undergraduates and 35% of graduate students.
What institutions need most
International students attend schools in almost equal percentages in the four regions of the United States. 26% of international students attend post-secondary institutions in the South and the Midwest, respectively, while 25% attend colleges or universities in the Northeast, and 22% in the West.
To meet their goals of increasing international enrolment over the next five years, something 92% of institutions indicated they wanted to do, the IIE asked administrators what they needed to fulfil their plans.
Perhaps surprisingly, hiring faculty was not the first answer by either administrators responsible for undergraduate or graduate programmes; hiring faculty was named by only 24% of undergraduate institutions and 40% of graduate programmes. Nor was adding majors to attract students the priority; 37% and 45% of institutions, respectively, named adding programmes. Only 37% of undergraduate institutions and 39% of graduate institutions named adding courses as a priority.
What both undergraduate and graduate institutions – 72% and 63% – named as the most important need if they are to fulfil their plans of enrolling more international students is hiring more support staff. They are needed, says the Fall 2023 Snapshot of International Student Enrollment, “to guide and support larger cohorts of international students”.