International Students Add $23 Billion to U.S. Economy

The 2012 Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange, released today, finds that the number of international students at colleges and universities in the U.S. increased by 6% to a record high of 764,495 in the 2011/12 academic year, while U.S. students studying abroad increased by one percent. This year, international exchanges in all 50 states contributed $22.7 billion to the U.S. economy.

The report’s release marks the start of International Education Weekend and there will also be a briefing tomorrow to examine the key trends in detail, with a discussion of how economic factors and education policies affect global student mobility.

International Students in the US

The strong increase in international student enrollments shows the continued conviction of international students (and parents) that a U.S. degree is a sound investment in their future careers, a finding reinforced by results of recent IIE surveys of students overseas considering studying outside their own countries. This 2011/12 data marks the sixth consecutive year that Open Doors reported expansion in the total number of international students in U.S. higher education; there are 31% more international students studying at U.S. colleges and universities than there were a decade ago. A similar increase in the number of “new” international students, those enrolling for the first time at a U.S. college or university in fall 2012, indicates that this growth trend is continuing. New enrollments in 2011 were up 7% from the prior year. Despite this strong growth, international students still constitute less than 4% of total U.S. higher education enrollment.

The growth is largely driven by strong increases in the number of students from China, particularly at the undergraduate level. Chinese student enrollments increased by 23% in total and by 31% at the undergraduate level. Large increases in undergraduate students from Saudi Arabia, funded by Saudi government scholarships, also help explain why international undergraduates studying in the U.S. now outnumber international graduate students, for the first time in 12 years.

Economic and Social Impact:

The continued growth in international students coming to the U.S. for higher education has a significant positive economic impact on the country. International students contribute more than $22.7 billion to the U.S. economy, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Open Doors 2012 reports that more than 70% of all international students receive the majority of their funds from sources overseas, including assistance from their home country governments or universities. Students from around the world who study in the U.S. also contribute to America's scientific and technical research and bring international perspectives into classrooms, helping prepare American undergraduates for global careers, and often lead to longer-term business relationships and economic benefits.

Host States and Campuses:

This increased international presence has been felt across the United States, with the top 20 host universities and nine of the top ten host states with more international students than in the prior year. California hosted more than 100,000 international students for the first time this year, followed by New York, Texas, Massachusetts and Illinois. Among the top 10 destinations, Pennsylvania, Florida and Indiana had the largest% increases, with the international student population in each state growing by close to 10%. At the institutional level, the University of Southern California has the greatest number of international students, followed by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, New York University, Purdue University and Columbia University. New York City remains the top metropolitan area for international students.

Places of Origin:

There were increases in the number of students from 12 of the top 25 places of origin, including Brazil, China, France, Indonesia, Iran, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Spain, the United Kingdom, Venezuela, and Vietnam. At the same time, numbers declined from several major sending countries, including India (down 4%), South Korea, (down 1%), and Japan (down 6%). The factors driving these declines may include global and home country economic factors, growing higher education opportunities at home, and stronger employment opportunities at home after graduation.

U.S. Students Studying Abroad

In the 2010/11 academic year, 273,996 American students studied abroad for academic credit, an increase of one percent — an all-time high. U.S. students studying abroad increased in 17 of the top 25 destination countries. Five% more students studied in China and 12% more students studied in India than in the prior year. Open Doors 2012 reports that the United Kingdom remains the leading destination for American students, followed by Italy, Spain, France and China—which remained the fifth largest host destination for the fifth year. There were significant increases in the number of Americans studying in several “non-traditional” destinations outside Europe: Brazil, China, Costa Rica, India, and South Korea. More Americans also studied in some of the European destinations, with nine% more studying in Italy, and smaller increases in study abroad to Austria, Germany, Ireland, Spain and the United Kingdom. Based on the steady increase in Open Doors numbers, American students have continually shown that they remain interested in getting international experience. Many campus leaders remain committed to ensuring that large numbers of their students have an international experience before graduating, and Open Doors reported that 33 campuses had study abroad participation rates of more than 70% of their student body.

Study abroad by American students has more than tripled over the past two decades, and Open Doors reported a steady rise in U.S. study abroad over several decades. Study abroad numbers rose significantly in 2009/10 with a 4% increase and are continuing to grow. However, American students studying abroad still represent a small proportion of total enrollment in U.S. higher education. About 14% of American students receiving Bachelor’s degrees this past year have studied abroad at some point during their undergraduate programs, while only 1% of U.S. students are studying abroad during a single academic year (273,996 out of the more than 20 million students enrolled in U.S. higher education).

Students going to Japan dropped 33% (with programs disrupted by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami), and a 42% decrease in U.S. students studying in Mexico coupled with smaller declines in students studying in six of the top 25 host countries, kept the total study abroad number from showing a more robust increase in 2010/11. Early feedback from leading U.S. study abroad programs suggests that growth has picked up again.

In an effort to increase study abroad to strategic priority countries, in Fiscal Year 2012 the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs awarded ten grants to expand capacity of American institutions to send U.S. students abroad and the capacity of host institutions overseas to receive them. According to IIE’s Center for International Partnerships, U.S. colleges and universities are increasingly looking to form innovative partnerships with campuses abroad to enable more of their students to study in one another’s countries, and to encourage collaboration among faculty and researchers. They are developing new study abroad programs, with strategic links to the institutions’ international goals and curriculum.