Foreign Enrollment Slows at U.S. Colleges and Universities

The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently released a study indicating that the enrollment of international students at American colleges slowed dramatically between 2008 and 2009. The organization predicts that continuing economic problems here and abroad may continue to drag down foreign enrollment in the coming years.

International Student

Following Foreign Enrollment

Foreign students are good for our colleges and universities. They bring different perspectives, diverse ideas and, of course, tuition dollars. Until recently, the U.S. dominated the market for international students. The Institute of International Education reports that there were over 670,000 foreign students in American higher education in the 2008-2009 school year. Great Britain, the country with the second-largest population of international students, only had about 340,000 in the same year. During these boom times, CBS Money Watch listed the following American institutions as those with the most international students:

Rank School Percentage of Total Enrollment
1. University of Southern California (USC) 22%
2. New York University (NYU) 13%
3. Columbia University 26%
4. University of Illinois 17%
5. Purdue University 15%
6. University of Michigan 14%
7. University of Texas 11%
8. University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) 15%
9. Boston University 16%
10. Michigan State University 10%
11. Harvard University 23%
12. University of Florida 9%

The high international enrollment in the U.S. came from three straight years of major jumps in foreign students. Between fall 2007 and fall 2008, there was a 16% increase in the number of new international students in the U.S. But as the financial crisis worsened both at home and abroad, many people feared that there would be an exodus of foreign students. Tuition at U.S. schools is much higher than in many other countries, where the capacity for higher education is growing. Furthermore, the value of many foreign currencies declined relative to the dollar, while graduate schools decreased their institutional grant offerings. And, in response to budget crises at home, many American schools increased restrictions on international enrollment.

A recent report from the National Science Foundation (NSF) confirms that the global economic crisis did have an effect on foreign student enrollment - but not as much as many had predicted. Although there was no growth in first-time international students, and overall enrollment gains plummeted between fall 2008 and fall 2009, the total number of foreign students still experienced a modest increase.


Graduate Schools See No Increase in New Foreign Enrollments

The NSF drew on data from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) to examine changes in foreign student enrollment between fall 2006 and fall 2009. The organization focused primarily on science and engineering (S&E), but also included basic data on non-S&E fields such as business, education and the humanities.

The NSF's analysis shows that total foreign enrollment in U.S. colleges and universities increased by 3% in the fall of 2009. Although that represents an equal number of undergraduate and graduate students overall, grad students significantly outnumber undergrads in S&E. The total number of international graduate S&E students increased 3% between fall 2008 and fall 2009, but there was a 2% drop in the number of first-time foreign graduate students in the same time period. New student enrollment in non-S&E graduate programs held steady from 2008 to 2009. The NSF notes that these numbers could portend even less growth in years to come.

By contrast, undergraduate enrollment in S&E experienced a 5% increase between fall 2008 and fall 2009, although the NSF points out that this is substantially smaller than growth in the previous year. The total number of international undergrads also saw a modest increase that year, 6% in S&E and 2% in non-S&E.

Breaking the numbers down by field, the NSF reports that, although S&E fields saw a 4% increase from 2008 to 2009, the share of S&E students in total international enrollment has held steady at about 44% for the past three years. Engineering and computer science accounted for the most foreign S&E students in 2009. As a group, non-S&E fields experienced a 2% enrollment increase in 2009, with business leading the pack. Enrollment in education and the humanities decreased.

National Science Foundation Fig 1

From 'Foreign Science and Engineering Students in the United States', NSF, page 3.

Another Chinese Export: International Students

The NSF also explored the countries of citizenship for international students in fall 2009. Although China tops the list for total number of students in the U.S., India sends more S&E students, coming in at 67,800 for 2009 as compared to China's 53,740. The 10 countries with the most students in the U.S. in all fields in fall 2009 were:

  1. China: 102,190
  2. India: 94,300
  3. South Korea: 64,150
  4. Canada: 26,830
  5. Taiwan: 22,350
  6. Japan: 20,430
  7. Nepal: 13,060
  8. Saudi Arabia: 12,650
  9. Turkey: 9,460
  10. Mexico: 9,200

Total enrollment from six of the top 10 countries dropped in 2009, and new student enrollment declined from seven countries. Interestingly, new student enrollment from China in S&E saw an impressive 25% increase that same year, while new S&E students from India actually dropped 17 percent. This may be due to India's strengthening academic programs in these areas, which appear to have kept more students home. Overall S&E enrollment also experienced increases in India, South Korea and the Middle East.

The fields that draw the most international students vary significantly by country of citizenship. S&E students tend to dominate the populations coming from China and India: Over half of the students from India study engineering or computer sciences, and roughly half the students from China study engineering or business. South Korea, however, sends far more non-S&E students. Their most populous areas of study are business and the humanities.

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