International student enrollment soars, nears pre-pandemic levels

In the 2022-23 academic year, the number of international students attending U.S. colleges and universities rose to 1,057,188 students, an 11.5% surge compared to the previous year, according to newly released data from the Open Doors 2023 Report on International Education Exchange by the U.S. Department of State and the Institute of International Education (IIE). Last year’s international student enrollment built on increases in the previous year, marking the fastest growth in international student enrollment in over 40 years. Rising international student enrollment was present at all academic levels for the first time since the 2014-15 academic year. International students accounted for approximately 5.6% of the current total higher education population enrolled at U.S. colleges and universities, according to Inside Higher Ed

“Over one million international students studying in the U.S. reflects a strong rebound, with the number approaching pre-pandemic levels,” said Allan E. Goodman, IIE’s CEO. “This reinforces that the U.S. remains the destination of choice for international students wishing to study abroad, as it has been for more than a century.”

The growth in international students was especially evident at the graduate level, with a 21% increase among students in master’s, doctoratal, or professional degree programs. A total of 467,027 international graduate students attended U.S. colleges in 2022, “the highest total of international graduates ever recorded in Open Doors,” the findings said.

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Growth in international students enrolling for the first time

The number of newly enrolled international students had plummeted by 43% in Fall 2020, the steepest enrollment loss of any demographic group. In 2022-23, the number of international students attending U.S. colleges and universities for the first time rose 14% year-over-year to 298,523, building on an 80% increase seen in 2021-22.

Looking at undergraduate international student enrollment, specifically, researchers note that it grew for the first time in five years, increasing by 0.9% to 347,602 students. This growth was particularly pronounced among students entering as first years and in associate-level programs.

In the last 10 years, undergraduate international student enrollment has typically surpassed graduate enrollment, and last year’s more modest growth among international undergraduates compared to graduate students might reflect a trend where students choose to attend their home university for college before enrolling in graduate programs at U.S. institutions, experts tell The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The number of international students in non-degree study and Optional Practical Training (OPT) also increased. The OPT program allows international graduates of U.S. colleges with F-1 student visas to work in the U.S. for up to three years after graduation.

Signs of continued growth?

Of the top 25 places of origin for foreign students, 23 saw increases, with 14 of them returning to pre-pandemic levels. Eight of the 25 places of origin saw record highs, including Bangladesh, Colombia, and Nepal. Ghana entered the top 25 places of origin for the first time, marking the first time in over a decade two Sub-Saharan African places of origin (Nigeria and Ghana) were in the top 25.

China and India remained the two top countries of origin for international students last year, accounting for 27.4% and 25.4% of all international students, respectively. However, India showed growth, rising 35% to an all time high of 268,923 students, while China slipped 0.2%. That may reflect demographic shifts in both China and India, with the former nation’s college-age population “stagnating” while India’s middle class rises, experts tell Inside Higher Ed.

Although the Open Doors 2022 report showed the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic led to a sharp 15% decline in international student enrollment—the largest drop in international student enrollment since the 1948 launch of the Open Doors report—a decline had been present in the four years before then, the Chronicle says. The U.S. is still the top destination for international students, but the percentage of international students coming to the country dropped from 28% in 2000 to 15% in 2022, according to ApplyBoard. Advocacy groups are working to make it easier for students to travel to receive student visas, establish pathways to immigration, and ensure international students feel at home on U.S. campuses.

However, data indicate that international student enrollment may continue to rise, as a snapshot survey by the IIE and analysis by the Chronicle show increases in international students this fall.

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