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US: International student numbers on the rise (thank you, China)

As expected, November was an important month for student mobility data results in the United States. ACA’s US member, the Institute for International Education (IIE), released Open Doors 2011, the definitive yearly analysis of student mobility into and out of the country. And the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) presented its figures on final offers of admission and enrolment of international graduate students for the current year.

On the numbers front, there are reasons for both optimism and pessimism. Open Doors 2011 indicates that (in 2010/11) the numbers of international students enrolling for the first time in US higher education grew by 5.7%. This represents a nice jump from the 1.3% growth rate registered in 2009/10 over the previous year. However, it lags far behind the rates of increase seen in 2006/07 through 2008/09, which ranged from 10% to 15.8%. And while the US now hosts a record 723 277 international students (a 4.7% increase over last year), some 46% hail from just three countries – China, India and South Korea (21.8%, 14.4% and 10.1% of the total international student population in the US, respectively). The growth in Chinese enrollment– +23.3% over last year – is particularly notable, while, interestingly Indian enrollment fell by 1%. Still, international students account for just 3.5% of all students enrolled in US higher education, a figure that has fluctuated by mere tenths of a percentage point over the past decade. Meanwhile, the latest data from CGS on admission and enrolment at the graduate level echo a generalised pattern of growth and demonstrate robust increases from China: both first-time offers of admission and confirmed first-time enrolment figures among Chinese applicants increased by 21% over the previous year. CGS notes that the “soaring participation of Chinese students in US graduate programs” over the last five years is one of two key trends shaping international graduate student enrolment in the US. The other is the tendency for the 100 largest US institutions (in terms of graduate degrees awarded to international students) to outpace other US institutions in terms of growing their international graduate student populations.

On the outbound side, Open Doors 2011 shows that American students are studying abroad in record numbers, but still represent a significant minority of the total US student population: 1.4% overall, and 9.5% of undergraduates. Nearly 40% of mobile US students opt to study in just four countries: the UK, Italy, Spain or France. However, China is now the fifth most popular destination country for American students. Still, China in 2009/10 (the latest year for which data are available) played host to just 13 910 American students, a mere 5.1% of American students overseas and far fewer than the “100 000 Strong” hoped for by the Obama Administration by 2015 (see ACA Newsletter – Education Europe, January 2011). Not unexpectedly, long-term study abroad remains an anomaly: just 3.9% of American students choose to remain overseas for a full academic year or calendar year.

Institute of International Education (IIE) US Council of Graduate Schools