Record number of international students: where they're from, where they study

The number of international students at US colleges and universities rose to 819,644 students in the 2012-13 school year – an increase of more than 7 percent, according to a new report.

Yuri Gripas/Reuters
Chinese students wave national flags to greet Chinese President Hu Jintao during his meeting with President Obama at the White House in Washington, in 2011. More than 800,000 international students studied at US colleges and universities last year, a record high fueled largely by an influx of young scholars from China, a new report shows.

A record number of international students studied in the United States last year, according to a new study released Monday. The number of US students studying abroad also rose to an all-time high, although the portion of US college students who study abroad at some point as an undergraduate is still fewer than 10 percent.

According to the latest Open Doors Report, published yearly by the Institute of International Education (IIE), the number of international students at US colleges and universities rose to 819,644 students in the 2012-13 school year – an increase of more than 7 percent over the previous school year.

The increase was fueled in part by more students coming to the US from China and Saudi Arabia. China sends far more students to the US than any other country – nearly 236,000 in the last school year, more than a quarter of all international students in the US. And that number grew by more than 21 percent. 

The number of students coming from Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, grew by more than 30 percent to 44,566, putting it fourth on the list of countries that send students to the US, behind India and South Korea and just ahead of Canada.

“A student from virtually any country can find an opportunity to study in the US,” says Allan Goodman, president and CEO of IIE, noting that that’s not the case in many receiving countries. “The diversity of who comes to America continues to be inspiring and impressive.” 

This is the third consecutive year that Open Doors has recorded a significant jump in the number of international students studying in the US. After a leveling-off and decline in numbers following 9/11, there are now 40 percent more international students studying in the US than there were a decade ago.

Some of the most notable growth from the previous year was in the number of students coming to the US from Middle East countries. Along with Saudi Arabia, Iran and Kuwait also vastly increased the number of students they sent to the US (by 25 percent and 37 percent, respectively). And the number of students coming to the US from Brazil rose by 20 percent.

In all those instances, Dr. Goodman says, large government scholarship programs in those countries were the driver of the growth. “That shows you what government scholarships and government incentive programs can do to promote international education,” he says.

In contrast, the number of students coming to the US from India and South Korea, while still large, declined slightly from the previous year.

Just 200 US colleges and universities host the vast majority of international students (some 70 percent), with the University of Southern California, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Purdue University, and New York University topping that list, each with more than 9,000 international students. The concentration, Goodman notes, means that there are thousands of other colleges and universities with plenty of capacity to host international students. He expects the number of international students studying in the US to reach 1 million within the next one to three years.

The majority of international students are funded by their families, and new data from NAFSA, an association of international educators, show that international students supported 313,000 US jobs and contributed $24 billion to the US economy during the 2012-13 school year.

But even more important, Goodman and others say, are the cultural understanding such exchange fosters and the contributions to important research gained by engaging the brightest students in the world.

“It makes the world we share a less dangerous place. There is no question that people who study in each other’s countries understand each other better,” Goodman says.

The number of US students studying abroad has also risen to a record high – jumping 3.4 percent to 283,332 in the 2011-12 school year. Still, just 9 percent of US college students study abroad at some point during their college years, with the majority going on short programs of eight weeks or less.

The vast majority of US students who do study abroad go to Europe, with Britain, Italy, Spain, France, and China topping the list. There were considerable increases in the number of US students going to some Latin American destinations, including Costa Rica, Brazil, Ecuador, and Peru – and a big increase in the number of students going to Japan, as programs there reopened following the tsunami of 2011.

But overall, Goodman says, too few American students are taking advantage of the opportunity to study abroad in college – a fact he and others at IIE hope to change, with an effort to double that number by the end of this decade.

Goodman hopes the numbers can be boosted at least in part by encouraging students – including community-college students – to get a passport before they start college, to not put off study abroad until later in their academic careers, and to consider flexible ways to go abroad even if they play a sport or double-major.

Especially in an age of globalization, he says, such experience is increasingly important.

“You really have to have an experience out of your culture,” says Goodman. “Because whatever you’re going to do, it’s probably going to be international” in some way.

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