Not only has the United States been built on immigration, but it is continually strengthened economically and culturally by its vast international population. A key part of sustaining this diversity involves supporting, investing in, and welcoming international students to college campuses. The United States has historically been a top destination for students, driven by opportunities for research, professional advancement, and sociocultural engagement. Particularly in the last few years, the experiences of international students in the US have become a microcosm of changing rhetoric toward immigrants, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and perceptions of the United States on a global stage.
By examining data on the contributions of international students in the United States and related trends, we can more clearly understand the power and benefits of having this unique community, and what its future might look like.
A Look at International Students in the U.S.
The Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), administered under an umbrella of agencies including DHS and its sub-agency U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), identifies international students as “nonimmigrants”— that is, any foreign national who temporarily visits the United States to fulfill a specific purpose, such as business, or, in this case, study.
Nonimmigrant students are eligible for the following visas:
- F-1: Those who seek to complete an academic course of study to complete K-12 or a college degree at an SEVP-certified school or program;
- M-1: Those whose primary purpose is to complete a vocational course of study at an SEVP-certified school or program;
- J-1 (exchange visitors): Those selected to participate in a U.S. Department of State-designated exchange visitor program.
International student mobility refers to the enrollment of international students in proportion to the total number of students in the given host country. In the United States, there are more than a million enrolled international students, making up nearly 6% of the total student body in the country, despite a slight decrease during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2021, international students in the United States came from 224 countries and represented every continent in the world, except Antarctica. Because most students come from China and India, Asia is the most popular continent of origin. Other countries that have historically not been common countries of origin, such as Nigeria and Kyrgyzstan, have recently seen an increase in students taking English proficiency tests for admission into programs around the world, according to a 2020 report published by Duolingo. This trend signals that significant numbers of students from wider geographic regions are seeking international higher education opportunities—perhaps benefitting from the increased accessibility of affordable, online proficiency exams like Duolingo.
Last year, however, all six continents saw a decline in the number of students coming to the United States, for a variety of reasons explored in this report.
Top Areas of Study for International Students
Most international students come to the United States to enroll in higher education—specifically, SEVP-certified associate, bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral programs. Most students pursue degrees in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math), as well as business and management. In the 2020-21 academic year, the 10 most popular fields of study were:
Top Institutions for International Students
To maintain their visas, F-1 and M-1 students must attend schools that are SEVP-certified. In 2021, four schools enrolled more than 15,000 international students: Northeastern University, New York University, Columbia University, and University of Southern California. Overall, the most popular 20 institutions hosted nearly 250,000 international students – more than a fifth of the entire international student population.
Top states where international students live
International students are enrolled in schools and live on/around campuses across the United States, but nearly half of all international students study in just these 5 states: California, New York, Texas, Massachusetts and Florida.
Contributions of International Students in the U.S.
Having so many international students on U.S. college campuses has an immediate economic impact. For one, international students usually pay higher tuition than domestic students in public universities because they do not qualify for state residency tuition breaks (private schools generally do not charge different tuition fees for U.S. and foreign-born students, though tuition at private institutions is generally higher than public colleges and universities). During the 2020-21 academic year, they contributed $28.4 billion to the U.S. economy and supported more than 306,000 jobs. Despite these numbers, this marked a decrease of more than a third from the previous year.
But international students stimulate more than just the economy; they also enhance the intellectual and cultural environment for American students. The relationships and experiences shared by domestic and foreign students have long-lasting impacts on personal, socioeconomic, and even political growth.
Researchers at Duke University surveyed alumni from several universities roughly 5, 10, and 20 years after graduation. The study found that U.S. students who actively interacted with international students reported better self-confidence, leadership, quantitative skills, and overall intellectual growth. Later in life, participants were more likely to appreciate art and literature, be able to place current problems in historical context, read or speak a foreign language, reexamine their political and religious beliefs, and reassess their beliefs about other races or ethnicities.
“A larger number of international students on campus could provide more opportunities for domestic students to interact across cultures and challenge their existing belief and value systems,” the researchers wrote.
According to findings in 2019 by the UK-based Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), the United States is the most popular place of study for overseas students who go on to become political leaders in their home countries. This is significant because research has found that when international students develop positive relationships with their host countries, they are more likely to have future visits, do business and maintain fruitful relationships with that country.
HEPI researchers write: “Growth in the number of people crossing borders for higher education has been so strong in recent years that any country that is not increasing its numbers significantly is falling back against its competitors in terms of global share.”
Unfortunately in the last couple of years, fewer international students are studying in the United States. While the COVID-19 pandemic was the most significant contributing factor for the 2019-20and-2020-21 academic years, it is only one of the reasons why international students are applying elsewhere.
Changes in International Student Enrollment Over Time
First, the obvious: the COVID-19 pandemic had a noticeable impact on international student enrollment.
According to the SEVP, there were 1.24 million active F-1 and M-1 students in 2021 — an approximate 18% decrease from pre-pandemic levels in 2019. Overall, U.S. schools saw a 72% decrease in new student enrollment in 2020 compared to 2019, but that increased slightly in 2021 as pandemic restrictions eased. The Northeast saw the greatest decrease – at nearly 20% – two years ago, but also bounced back up the most this year compared to other regions in the U.S., some of which saw marginal increases as well. Findings from the Institute of International Education (IIE) show that nearly 40,000 students deferred enrollment from Fall 2020 to a future term.
This trend was similar across all degree programs – a significant drop in the 2019-20 school year and a slight recovery in 2020-21, in large part because of a global return to normalcy several months into the pandemic. Additionally, many higher educational institutions committed to bringing international students back onto campus by designing hybrid or fully in-person curriculums (as opposed to fully remote ones the previous year), increasing flexibility for visa-related obstacles and expanding outreach to countries like China and India to attract more students.
However, international student enrollment has been steadily declining years before the pandemic. According to enrollment trends gathered by Open Doors, international student enrollment peaked in the 2015-2016 academic year and has been dropping ever since.
WHY FEWER INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS ARE STUDYING IN THE UNITED STATES
In 2019, the IIE surveyed administrators at almost 3,000 higher education institutions and found several potential reasons why fewer international students are choosing to study in the United States. Here are the top three:
- Visa concerns: Visa application process issues or delays/denials was the top reason for fall 2019 drops in enrollment, according to survey respondents. This was particularly exacerbated in 2020 as American embassies and consulates across the world shut down indefinitely – some remaining closed or extremely backlogged until late 2021 – as well as delays in domestic processing for OPT applications or extensions with little to no flexibility from USCIS.
- Global competition: More than half of colleges and universities reported that students decided to enroll in other countries’ higher education institutions, especially as some places – like the UK – introduced easier-to-access student and work visas to attract more international talent.
- Social and political climate: Political rhetoric, feeling unwelcome in the United States, and concerns about physical safety turned prospective international students away from U.S. colleges and universities, most notably in the early years of Donald Trump’s election to presidency.
In 2020, researchers from Central Michigan University examined “the Trump effect”—the net effect of the Trump administration’s policies, anti-immigrant rhetoric, and shifting requirements for both students and colleges. Although international student enrollment was already declining prior to Donald Trump taking office, new international student enrollment decreased by 6.6% in the 2017-2018 academic year and 0.9% in the 2018-2019 academic year. Among the most prominent factors during this time wasthe “Muslim Ban,” a series of executive orders signed on January 27, 2017 that banned foreign nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries from visiting the country for 90 days, among other restrictions. Anti-immigrant policies such as these contributed to a perceived lack of safety and security among international students while studying within the United States, which led to an enrollment drop of 15.5% from Saudi Arabia alone—even though this country wasn’t included in the Muslim travel ban. The reason cited by one in three students: the political climate and the Trump administration.
Although the Trump administration exacerbated social and political tensions in the United States, experts point to other considerations to explain the downward trend in international student enrollment: global economic decline, increased higher education growth in other countries, and negative perceptions of the United States. Even after the Biden administration replaced Trump’s, the unfortunate coincidence of that transition having occurred around the same time as the COVID-19 pandemic makes it hard to delineate pandemic-related effects on international student enrollment from the larger political rhetoric and context in the country.
In 2018, the British Council released a report that examined the drivers of “soft power”—that is, a country’s ability to persuade others to do what it wants, without coercion,or “hard power”. Although the United States remains the world’s most “powerful” nation (largely in terms of hard power as a result of its military strength), the authors note that the U.S. government is more distrusted than any of the other countries in the G20 (an intergovernmental forum comprising 19 countries and the European Union). The perception of the United States affects more than just its soft power; it also affects how willing international students are to live, work, and study here.
That said, international student enrollment has rebounded in the 2021-22 academic year. According to the IIE, higher education institutions reported a 68% increase in new international student enrollments, with an overall increase of 8% in total enrollments compared to the 46% and 17% drops respectively in the year before. According to a 2021 survey by the Council of Graduate Schools, which looked specifically at masters and doctoral programs, the sharp drop-off in international enrollment from fall 2019 to fall 2020 was fueled more by health and travel issues than a drop in interest. But still, the drop in the number of international students heavily affected the US – a decrease of more than $100 billion and the loss of 100,000 jobs – reminding the country of their importance.
According to the authors, U.S. institutions would have been on track to surpass enrollment levels from years prior had there not been the disruption caused by the pandemic.
There is plenty of evidence for how international students enrich the United States, both economically as well as in making its citizens more globally aware and culturally competent. This in turn could lead to higher levels of international cooperation and peacebuilding, cultivating a sustainable future for not just this country but the planet as a whole. A good start to that ambitious goal is working towards reducing the immense challenges faced by international students in the U.S today.
About the Data
The following public sources were used:
- Hacker N. L. & Bellmore E., (2020) “‘The Trump Effect’: How Does it Impact International Student Enrollment in U.S. Colleges?”, Journal of Critical Thought and Praxis, 10(1). https://doi.org/10.31274/jctp.11588
- Hanson, M. (2021) “International Student Enrollment Statistics.” EducationData.org. Retrieved from: https://educationdata.org/international-student-enrollment-statistics/
- Hillman, N., & Huxley, T. “The soft-power benefits of educating the world’s leaders,” HEPI Policy Note 16, Higher Education Policy Institute. Retrieved from: https://www.hepi.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Policy-Note-16-_-The-soft-power-benefits-of-educating-the-world%E2%80%99s-leaders-05_09_19-Screen.pdf
- Institute of International Education. (2021). “COVID-19 Effects on U.S. Higher Education Campuses.” Retrieved from: https://www.iie.org/en/Connect/COVID-19/COVID-19-Snapshot-Survey-Series
- Institute of International Education. (2021). “Fall 2021 International Student Enrollment Snapshot Survey.” Retrieved from: https://www.iie.org/Research-and-Insights/Open-Doors/Fall-International-Enrollments-Snapshot-Reports
- Institute of International Education. (2020). “International Students by Field of Study, 1999/00 – 2019/20.” Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange. Retrieved from https://opendoorsdata.org/data/international-students/fields-of-study/.
- Institute of International Education. (2020). “Top 25 Institutions Hosting International Students, 1999/00 – 2019/20.” Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange. Retrieved from https://opendoorsdata.org/data/international-students/leading-institutions/
- Institute of International Education. (2019). “Fall 2019 International Student Enrollment Snapshot Survey.” Retrieved from: https://www.iie.org/Research-and-Insights/Open-Doors/Fall-International-Enrollments-Snapshot-Reports
- Luo, J., & Jamieson-Drake, D. (2013). “Examining the Educational Benefits of Interacting with International Students.” Journal of International Students, 3(2), 85–101. https://doi.org/10.32674/jis.v3i2.503
- MacDonald, A. (2018). “Sources of soft power: How perceptions determine the success of nations,” The British Council. Retrieved from: https://www.britishcouncil.org/sites/default/files/sources-soft-power-report-perceptions-success.pdf
- NAFSA. “NAFSA International Student Economic Value Tool.” Retrieved from: https://www.nafsa.org/policy-and-advocacy/policy-resources/nafsa-international-student-economic-value-tool-v2
- Pavic, M., & Dewar, J. “International education trends via the world’s most accessible English test,” Duolingo. Retrieved from: https://blog.duolingo.com/international-education-trends-via-the-worlds-most-accessible-english-test/
- Patel, V. “Is the ‘Trump Effect’ Scaring Away Prospective International Students?” The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from: https://www.chronicle.com/article/is-the-trump-effect-scaring-away-prospective-international-students/
- Student and Exchange Visitor Program. (2020). “2020 SEVIS by the Numbers Report.” Retrieved from: https://www.ice.gov/doclib/sevis/pdf/sevisBTN2020.pdf
- Zhou, E., & Gao, J. (2021). International Graduate Applications & Enrollment: Fall 2020. Council of Graduate Schools. Retrieved from: https://cgsnet.org/sites/default/files/civicrm/persist/contribute/files…pdf
- U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) 2021 SEVIS by the Numbers Report 1. Retrieved from: https://www.ice.gov/doclib/sevis/pdf/sevisBTN2021.pdf, page 5, 8, 14.