International Students Studying in the United States: Trends and Impacts

A Boundless report uses public data to examine how international student enrollment has changed since 2016

The United States is strengthened by international perspectives. A key part of that equation involves supporting, investing in, and welcoming international students to college campuses. The United States has historically been a top destination for students, driven by the opportunities for research, professional advancement, and social opportunities. International students are also a barometer of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the impact of changing rhetoric toward immigrants, and perceptions of the United States on the global stage.

By examining the contributions and trends of international students in the United States, we can more clearly understand the power of remaining connected—both at home and abroad.

A Look at International Students in the U.S.

International student mobility refers to the enrollment of international students in proportion to total students in the host country. There are more than a million international students enrolled in the United States, making up 5.5% of the total U.S. student body.

The Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), part of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations, 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 study.

Nonimmigrant students are eligible for the following visas:

  • F-1 students: Those who seek to complete an academic course of study at an SEVP-certified school or program
  • M-1 students: 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 students stats U.S.

In 2020, international students in the United States came from 226 countries and represented every continent in the world, with the exception of Antarctica. Due to the number of students coming from China and India, Asia is the most popular continent of origin. All six continents saw a decline in the number of students coming to the United States. We’ll explore some potential reasons below.

Top countries of origin for U.S. international students

In May 2021, Duolingo published a report that examined 2020 international education trends based on the number of students sharing their English proficiency results to programs around the world. The list of top-sharing countries included the debut of Kyrgyzstan and Nigeria.

Historically, these countries have not been top countries of origin for students entering higher education in the United States. Per 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’s English Test.

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 2019-2020 academic year, the 10 most popular fields of study were:

Most popular fields of study for U.S. international students

Top Institutions for International Students

To maintain their visas, F-1 and M-1 students must attend schools that are SEVP-certified. In 2020, four schools enrolled more than 15,000 international students: Northeastern University, New York University, Columbia University, and University of Southern California.

Top institutions for U.S. international students

Where International Students Call Home in the United States

International students study throughout the United States, but nearly half of all international students study in the following states: California, New York, Texas, Massachusetts and Florida.

States with highest number of international students

Contributions of International Students in the U.S.

The commentary about international students on U.S. college campuses tends to include their immediate economic impact. After all, international students pay higher tuition than domestic students. They contributed $38.7 billion to the U.S. economy and supported about 416,000 jobs during the 2019-2020 academic year. But international students stimulate more than just the economy; they also enhance the intellectual and cultural environment for American students. Those relationships and experiences have long-term impacts on personal, socioeconomic, and even political levels.

Economic contributions of international students

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, place current problems in historical perspectives, 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 write.

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 later go on to lead in their home countries. This is significant because research has found that when international students develop positive relationships with their host countries, they’re more likely to visit in the future and do business 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, fewer international students are studying in the United States. While the COVID-19 pandemic is a significant contributing factor for the 2019-2020 academic year, it is not the only reason that international students are applying elsewhere.

Changes in International Student Enrollment Over Time

First, the obvious: the COVID-19 pandemic had a marked impact on international student enrollment.

According to the SEVP, there were 1.25 million active records for F-1 and M-1 students in 2020—a 17.86% decrease from 2019. Overall, U.S. schools saw a 72% decrease in new student enrollment in 2020 compared to the previous year. The Northeast saw the greatest decrease at 19.4%. Findings from the Institute of International Education (IIE) show that nearly 40,000 students deferred enrollment from Fall 2020 to a future term.

Regional declines in international student enrollment

This trend was true across all degree programs in the 2019-2020 school year, although doctoral programs experienced less of a decrease. One reason why: the IIE found that many doctoral universities noted application increases (59%).

Declines in international student enrollments by degree program

However, international student enrollment was declining before the pandemic. According to enrollment trends gathered by Open Doors, international student enrollment peaked in the 2015-2016 academic year and has been steadily dropping since then.

Why fewer international students are studying in the United States

In 2019, the IIE surveyed 500 U.S. officials and found several potential reasons why fewer international students are choosing to study in the United States. Here are the top three:

  1. Visa concerns: Visa application process issues or delays/denials was the top reason for fall 2019 drops in enrollment, according to survey respondents.
  2. Global competition: More than half of colleges and universities reported that students decided to enroll in another country’s higher education institution.
  3. 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.

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.

One contributing factor during this time is the “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.

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, 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.

With that said, international student enrollment is rising: per the IIE, 43% of institutions reported an increase in international student applications for the 2021-22 academic year. 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.

The authors write, “We estimate that had it not been for the global pandemic, we might have more international graduate students enrolled at U.S. institutions in Fall 2020 than Fall 2019.” What remains to be seen is how all international students, including those enrolled in associate’s and bachelor’s programs, respond to the 2021-2022 academic years and beyond.

One of the benefits of traveling is being granted the opportunity to experience people, cultures, and belief systems outside of our own—and citizens also benefit when international visitors uproot their lives to work and study in a new country. When we interact with people who broaden and challenge our perspectives, we become more global-minded, more connected, and more culturally competent. In this way, international students are a key part of not just U.S. campus life, but also United States culture as a whole.

About the Data

The following public sources were used: