International students in th USA. Infographics from Open Doors, IIE.
New record peak for international students in the USA

The USA reached a record industry peak of international students in 2016/17 following a 3.4 per cent in increase in the latest Open Doors data released today, although a decline in first-year enrolments and mixed reports from the current recruitment cycle suggest a future slowdown.

In the 2017 Open Doors Report on International Education Exchange, published by IIE and the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, there were 1,078,822 overseas students at higher education colleges and universities, the second time the country has topped one million students and the 11th consecutive year of growth.


However, there was a 3.3 per cent decline in first-year enrolments in 2016/17 to 290,836 students, the first drop in the six years since IIE began reporting the measure.


China remained comfortably the largest source market for the USA, increasing by 6.8 per cent compared with the previous year and representing almost one third (32.5 per cent) of all enrolments at 350,755 students.


Second-placed India continued its recent growth trajectory with a 12.3 per cent increase to 186,267 students, but there were declines of 3.8 per cent and 14.2 per cent respectively from Korea and Saudi Arabia. Canada completed the top five source countries with a modest rise.


Among the top 25 source countries, 18 recorded an increase in 2016/17, with the largest year-on-year growth coming from Nepal at 20.1 per cent.


The biggest decline was from Brazil at 32.4 per cent, attributed to the curtailment of the country's Science Without Borders scholarship programme. Cutbacks in Saudi Arabia's funding were also cited as reasons for declines, and the ratio of students funded by foreign governments slipped to 5.7 per cent last year, the lowest for almost ten years.


IIE President and CEO, Allan E. Goodman, said, "Countries and multinational employers around the world are competing to attract top talent. As more countries become active hosts of international students and implement strategies to attract them, the competition for top global talent in higher education and the workforce will only intensify."


All of the top ten host states in the USA recorded an increase in international students in 2016/17, with California the largest at 156,879 (a 5.1 per cent rise), followed by New York and Texas. New York University, meanwhile, held its position as the largest host institution with 17,326 students.


There were small increases in the number of undergraduate and postgraduate students, but a 19.1 per cent rise in international students pursuing post-study Optional Practical Training (OPT) work to 175,695, almost double the rate of five years ago.


IIE suggested that this has been one of the major factors of growth in recent years, as students stay longer and remain attached to their institution during OPT, which can be taken for up to three years for STEM graduates. In contrast, there was a 14.2 per cent decrease in non-degree students, including short-term exchange and intensive English programmes.


In an IIE snapshot survey of 522 institutions on autumn 2017 international enrolments, there was a decline of seven per cent in new students, suggesting that the decrease in first-year students may be continued in next year's full Open Doors report for 2017/18.


The snapshot survey, conducted by IIE in partnership with eight other associations, was designed to be a complement to Open Doors with an insight into the current academic year and found mixed enrolment trends, with 45 per cent reporting a drop in international students for the current academic year, 31 per cent indicating an increase and the remainder experiencing a stable year.


"A complex mix of factors are cited by institutions, including competition from other countries, the cost of US higher education, visa delays or denials, and an uncertain US social and political climate," said IIE in a statement.


Respondents to the survey indicated that they were continuing to prioritise Asia for recruitment, particularly China (67 per cent), Vietnam (51) and India (48). Four in five institutions said they were not concerned about having too many Chinese students and were working on measures to better integrate Chinese students into campus life.


Allan said, "Students continue to be attracted to the high-quality and diverse opportunities offered by US colleges and universities. But it is critical for US institutions to set strategic goals and be proactive in reaching out to students and families in a wide range of countries in the coming year, and for the United States to keep its academic doors open to students from all over the world."


The Open Doors report also tracks the number of American college students studying abroad, which increased by 3.8 per cent to 325,339 in 2015/16. The UK, Italy and Spain remained the top three destinations and all increased. The outbound figures presented by IIE are a year behind the inbound data.


The Open Doors data is avaialble on the IIE website.



By Matthew Knott

News Editor