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International Student Enrollment Rises 7 Percent

November 20, 2008

The total number of international students attending U.S. higher education institutions rose to 623,805 in academic year 2007-2008, an all-time record and a 7 percent increase from last academic year, according to the Institute of International Education’s annual "Open Doors" report of international student exchange. International students account for roughly 4 percent of the 18 million students enrolled at U.S. postsecondary schools.

Much of the increase in international enrollment came from students in Optional Practical Training (OPT) positions, which allow foreign students to stay in the U.S. and work for up to 12 months after receipt of a degree or certificate (or 29 months if students graduate from certain fields, such as science, engineering, or technology). Although no longer enrolled in higher education, these OPT participants are counted as college students for government tracking purposes; they account for about 9 percent of international enrollees. The number of OPT students jumped 36 percent in 2007-2008, partially due to better reporting from the responding institutions.

In contrast, the number of students in degree or certificate programs grew much more slowly. The number of graduate students, who account for 44 percent of all international attendees in the U.S., grew by just 5 percent. The number of non-U.S. citizens seeking bachelor's degrees, who account for almost one-third of all international enrollees, also grew 5 percent. But the number of students seeking associate’s degrees fell 4 percent.

Foreign student enrollment has provided a substantial economic benefit to American colleges and universities. The estimated net economic contribution from international students enrolled at U.S. postsecondary institutions in 2007-2008 was $15.5 billion. Most of these funds ($10.3 billion) came from tuition and fee payments collected from non-U.S. students. California received the largest positive economic impact from non-U.S. citizen enrollment ($2.4 billion), followed by New York ($1.9 billion) and Texas ($1.1 billion).

About 15 percent of non-citizens at U.S. schools came from India, followed by China (13 percent), South Korea (11 percent) and Japan (5 percent). Business/management (20 percent), engineering (17 percent), and life sciences (9 percent) were the largest fields of study for international students.

The number of Americans who studied abroad for academic credit has also been on the rise. In 2006-2007, 241,791 U.S. citizens headed overseas for at least one semester of academic credit at a foreign college or university, an 8 percent increase over the previous year. U.S. student participation in study abroad programs has jumped 150 percent over the past decade. The plurality (15 percent) of American study abroad students are enrolled at universities in the United Kingdom, followed closely by Italy (13 percent) and Spain (11 percent).

NACUBO staff resource: Ken Redd, Director, Research & Policy Analysis