Expert Commentary

International students: Where they come from and what they study

Over a million international students study in the United States. China provides almost a third, according to a new government paper.

(Faustin Tuyambaz/Unsplash)

Much like their fees, America’s colleges and universities are growing at a brisk clip, thanks in part to the legions of international students seeking an education in the United States. The share of international students in the U.S. grew from 1.5 percent of the college student population in 1975 to 4.8 percent in 2015; the rate picked up most sharply after the 2009 financial crisis.

Some fear international students are taking Americans’ spots, or lowering standards in some classrooms. Yet they often help subsidize Americans’ tuition, especially at public universities, and are a boon to the American economy.

Who are they? Every two years Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the federal agency tasked with managing America’s borders, publishes a detailed report. The latest, released in June 2017, says the international student population is up to 1.18 million, a 2 percent rise in the last year. The vast majority hail from Asia.

The data — all up-to-date on May 5, 2017 — are from ICE’s Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). Students come to the U.S. on several types of visas: F-1 students (the majority) typically enroll in a degree-granting course of study, be it engineering, medicine or liberal arts, though some attend elementary and high school; M-1 students enroll in vocational schools, where they may study a trade; and J-1 exchange visitors include work-study students who travel to the U.S. for a summer.

These are all non-immigrant visas, meaning the visa holders are expected to return to their home country when their course is finished, or after completing an optional period of post-graduation on-the-job training.

Key takeaways:

  • There were 1,184,735 international students in the U.S. on May 5, 2017. That number increased 2 percent over the previous May.
  • Overall, 57 percent are male:
    • from Africa and Asia, 58 percent were male;
    • from Australia and the Pacific islands, 57 percent were male;
    • from North America and Europe, 51 percent were male;
    • from South America, the split was 50-50.
  • 8,774 colleges are accredited to host international students.
  • About an equal number of international students are pursuing bachelor’s and master’s degrees; 12 percent are in doctoral programs.
  • 77 percent of all international students hail from Asia; over 30 percent of the total come from China and over 17 percent from India.
  • In Asia, Nepal is the fastest growing source country, rising 18 percent in the last year; Saudi Arabia is falling fastest, with 19 percent fewer students traveling to America in 2017 than 2016.
  • The region with the fastest growth is South America, with a 6.5 percent increase.
  • 18 percent of international students study business.
  • 43 percent study science, technology, engineering or mathematics (the STEM fields).
  • 49 percent of Asian students study a STEM field.
  • 84 percent of Indian students study STEM.
  • 10 percent of the international student population studies at one of 10 schools. The top 10 starting with number one: New York University, University of Southern California, Northeastern University, Columbia University, Arizona State University, University of Illinois, Purdue University, Pennsylvania State University, City University of New York and Indiana University.
  • Yet of all the schools that host international students, 76 percent of them have 50 or fewer.
  • California, New York and Texas together host 35 percent of international students.
  • Growth nationwide was 2 percent in the year to May 2017; in the Northeast, growth was 4 percent; in the Midwest it was 1 percent.
  • The number of J-1 visa holders decreased by 1.3 percent between May 2016 and May 2017.

The findings underscore that the U.S. is part of a global trend. Globally, between 2000 and 2012, the number of students studying abroad more than doubled, to 4.5 million, according to a 2014 paper by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a group of mostly developed countries. Around the world, more than half of international students hail from Asia.

Helpful resources:

The Institute of International Education, a non-profit that manages some government-funded educational exchange programs, such as the Fulbright scholarship, publishes research about international students on behalf of the government.

The National Center for Education Statistics at the Department of Education publishes fast facts about postsecondary enrollment rates.

ICE has a fact sheet on student visas. The State Department, where foreign students must apply for a visa, has information as well.

The Pew Research Center has written on the surge in foreign students, primarily from Asia; and the growing trend for foreign students to pursue work opportunities in the U.S. after graduation.

NBC Nightly News found a drop in the number of foreign students applying to American colleges after Donald Trump became president.

We have written about research on China’s rise as a science powerhouse and Chinese tourists traveling abroad for the first time. This Journalist’s Resource tip sheet describes how to find data on American colleges and universities.

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