New international student enrollment surged 80% last year

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Dive Brief: 

  • New international student enrollment surged 80% in the 2021-22 academic year compared to the year before, bringing numbers back near pre-pandemic levels, according to annual data released Monday by the Institute of International Education and the U.S. Department of State. 
  • That recovery is continuing this fall. Colleges reported a 9% increase in total international students this term and a 7% rise in new international students, according to a separate survey of more than 630 U.S. higher education institutions. 
  • Overall, almost 949,000 international students were studying at U.S. colleges in 2021-22 — a count that includes those within the country and those enrolled online but living abroad. It also includes students in the Optional Practical Training program, which allows them to be temporarily employed in a job related to their area of study. 

Dive Insight: 

The coronavirus pandemic battered international enrollment. In 2020-21 — the first full academic year of the health crisis — total numbers plummeted 15%, the largest year-over-year decline since IIE began tracking numbers over seven decades ago. 

Colleges often say they prize international enrollment because of the diverse talent and perspectives it brings to campus in a time of globalization. But it’s also important for institutions’ budgets because international students tend to pay more for tuition than their domestic peers.

Total international enrollment still hasn’t completely recovered to pre-pandemic levels. However, the latest data shows that the number of foreign students studying for the first time in the U.S. has reached almost 262,000 students. That’s close to the roughly 268,000 new international students at U.S. colleges in the 2019-20 academic year, before the pandemic drove down international enrollment. 

“The incredible rebound we have seen in international student mobility demonstrates the United States’ and its higher education institutions’ unwavering commitment to welcoming students from around the world,” IIE CEO Allan Goodman said in a statement. “The Open Doors 2022 report emphasizes that, despite the complexity and uncertainty that accompany pandemics, international educational exchanges continue.”

New international enrollment soared after plummeting when the pandemic broke out

Number of international students at U.S. colleges and universities by type

The No. 1 place of origin of international students is still China, which accounted for 30.6% of this population in the 2021-22 academic year. However, 8.6% fewer international students came from China compared to the year before. 

Meanwhile, other countries of origin saw large gains. They include India, which accounts for 21% of international students at U.S. colleges. Almost 19% more international students came from India compared to the year before. 

Several other countries saw double-digit increases, namely Mexico, Nigeria and Japan, though they account for a much smaller share of international students than China and India.

Enrollment of students from India surged 19%

International students at U.S. colleges by country or origin

Graduate students drove much of the growth in international students. The number of international graduate students increased 17% year over year to around 385,000 students. Undergraduate international enrollment, on the other hand, declined 4.2% compared to the year before, falling to around 345,000 students. 

The number of people in Optional Practical Training programs, once a rising source of international students, fell 9.4%, declining for the second straight year. However, the survey of 630-plus institutions suggests that could be changing, with these colleges reporting that the number of students pursuing these opportunities has increased 6% this fall over the year before. 

Colleges participating in the survey said they are prioritizing outreach to students in India, Vietnam, Brazil and China. Nearly nine in 10 of them said their financial support for recruitment is the same or higher than in recent years.

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