The Open Doors 2023 report on international educational exchange, released on Monday by the US State Department and the Institute of International Education, showed new enrolments exceeded pre-pandemic levels with over 298,000 international students starting programs last year.
The figures mark the fastest growth rate in more than 40 years but the US just stopped short of returning to pre-pandemic numbers, with 1,057,188 students in 2022/23, compared to approximately 1,094,000 in 2018/19.
Data from fall 2023 suggests growth has continued this year, with the number of international students further increasing by 8%.
“Over one million international students studying in the US reflects a strong rebound, with the number approaching pre-pandemic levels,” said Allan E. Goodman, CEO of IIE.
“This reinforces that the US remains the destination of choice for international students wishing to study abroad, as it has been for more than a century.”
Places of Origin
China showed signs of stabilising with numbers dropping -0.2% compared to the -9% fall last year. The country remained the top sender of international students, with 289,526 in the US.
India was the second top sending country with 268,923 students, a 35% increase year-on-year – the biggest growth out of all top 25 markets and a new record for the country. Notably, the number of Indian students at graduate level increased by 63%.
Chinese and Indian nationals collectively made up 53% of all international students in the US.
South Korea was the third largest market (43,847 students), followed by Canada (27,876), Vietnam (21,900), Taiwan (21,834) and Nigeria (17,640).
“The push to diversify is paying off”
Sub-Saharan African showed the highest regional growth (+18%) and Ghana entered the top 25 places of origin for the first time with 6,468 international students. Many institutions reported focusing on recruitment efforts in the region but concerns remain about high visa denial rates limiting the pace of growth.
Brenda Grewe, acting managing director of the visa office at the US State Department, said “When it comes to students coming to the United States…, we are the ones in the hard spot of having to balance that desire to bring more people here with US immigration law.”
Grewe emphasised that applicants are considered on a case-by-case basis, not by demographics.
Of the 25 top countries, 23 increased their student numbers. Saudi Arabia was the only one which saw a decline, down -12% compared to the previous year.
“While these numbers do not necessarily compare in size to the numbers of China and India, it does show that in these countries outreach and recruitment and the push to diversify is paying off,” said Mirka Martel, head of research, evaluation and learning at IIE.
Academic levels & programs
International student enrolment increased across all levels in 2022/23. While undergraduate enrolment grew for the first time in five years by 1%, graduate enrolment accelerated with 467,027 international students pursuing master’s, doctorate, or professional degrees (+21%). This is the highest total of international graduate students ever recorded.
“We may be seeing that preferences are shifting,” said Martel. “We may be seeing that students may be choosing to pursue their undergraduate studies at home, at home institutions, and then waiting to really study abroad for their graduate degree.”
She added that this could also be part of the post-pandemic rebound, with some students choosing to study in their home countries while borders remained closed before moving on to graduate education abroad.
STEM topics were the most popular with 55% of international students pursuing majors in these fields. Approximately 20% (240,230) studied maths or computer science, followed by 19% (202,801) who studied engineering.
Optional Practical Training
In addition, 198,793 students pursued graduate work experience via Optional Practical Training, 8% more than the previous year. India continued to be the top place of origin for OPT students, with approximately 69,000 students.
This was the first time in three years the number of students on OPT grew but levels remain lower than pre-pandemic (numbers peaked at 223,539 in 2019/20).
“This was driven by the strong rebound of international graduates last year, now pursuing post-study work opportunities,” said Martel.
“As incoming classes of international students, particularly graduates, continue to grow post-pandemic, the number of students on OPT will likely continue to grow.”
Destinations & Institutions
New York University hosted the most international students (24,496) followed by Northeastern in Boston (20,637) and Columbia University (19,001).
Overall, 48 out of 50 states reported an increase in international students. California was leading with 138,393 international students, followed by New York (126,782) and Texas (70,223).
In total, international students made up 6% of all students in the US higher education system and, according to analysis by NAFSA, contributed over $40 billion to the US economy.
Fall 2023 snapshot
Open Doors also received data from over 630 higher education institutions on their fall 2023 enrollments and found that the number of international students continued to increase at 8%.
“There continues to be substantial capacity for campuses to host even more international students”
“This signals a continued growth in international students at US colleges and universities and builds on the two year gains already noted in open doors,” said Martel.
Growth continued across all academic levels and OPT with undergraduate growth at 3%, graduate at 7% and OPT at 17%.
“There continues to be substantial capacity for campuses to host even more international students in the future,” said Martel.