International student enrollment rises to near pre-pandemic levels, survey finds

After plummeting 15% at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, international student enrollment rose 4% in the 2021-22 academic year to 948,519 students, according to the new Open Doors 2022 report based on a survey of nearly 3,000 U.S. colleges and universities. The report, released by the Institute of International Education (IIE) and the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, shows the increase in international students was driven by an 80% surge in newly enrolled international students over the prior year, as well as a rise in graduate student enrollment, Higher Ed Dive reports.

“It’s a hopeful report,” Stephanie K. Kim, an associate professor of the practice and faculty director of higher education administration at Georgetown University, tells Diverse Issues in Higher Education. “This certainly shows that we could be returning close to what we had previously seen.”

International student enrollment has also continued its upward trend this fall, with IIE’s Fall International Enrollment Snapshot of over 630 colleges and universities showing a 9% increase in the total number of international students and a 7% increase in newly enrolled international students, according to Higher Ed Dive.

International students’ changing demographics

While international student enrollment appears to be returning to pre-pandemic levels, the demographics of international students in the U.S. show signs of change. Over half of all the international students last year came from China and India, with China still sending the most international students (30.6% of total international student enrollment) in the 2021-22 academic year. However, the number of students from China decreased by 8.6% compared with the previous year, while the number of students from India increased by 18.9% compared to the year before.

There were significant increases in enrollment of students from several Western European countries including Germany (+59.4), Spain (+41.2), and France (+37.4%); Japan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Colombia, and Nigeria had double-digit increases, as well.

The report also looks at U.S. students studying abroad, finding that they have become more diverse, with the number of students from underrepresented backgrounds increasing by 10% from 2010 to 2021, Diverse Issues in Higher Education reports.

Related: Georgetown University praises court decision allowing international students to work in the U.S. >

The rebound in international enrollment has had a positive economic impact, contributing $33.8 billion to the U.S economy, according to a report released by NAFSA: Association of International Educators. However, that contribution is still $6 billion below pre-pandemic levels, Inside Higher Ed reports.

To continue to see improvement in international student enrollment, experts advise the U.S. to make it easier and more affordable for international students to attend colleges and universities throughout the country. “We need to make sure that we’re pulling from a broader number of countries and also, within those countries, from all levels of society and not necessarily just those students who can afford the price tag,” Rachel Banks, senior director for public policy and legislative strategy at NAFSA: Association of International Educators, tells Inside Higher Ed. “That is definitely a hurdle that we face against some competitors, is that we are by far one of the more expensive destinations for an international student.”

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