The Surprising Boom in the Student Body

The Surprising Boom in the Student Body
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Why you should care

Because these students care more about policies than rhetoric.

Building walls. Banning Muslims. Blocking refugees. Those are the headlines about U.S. immigration from the past few months. But they don’t tell the full story.

Last year saw a record-breaking number of international students studying in the U.S.

The sheer number of international students — 974,926 — was matched by the highest growth rate in 35 years, for the 2014–15 academic year, up from about 200,000 in 1968–69. These numbers come from an annual Open Doors study by the Institute of International Education, which has examined international student data across the U.S. since 1919. Of those nearly 1 million students, the greatest share live in California, followed by New York and Texas. And the most foreign-friendly schools? New York University, followed by the University of Southern California.

Just over a fifth of the students are studying business and management, with another fifth hoping to become engineers. Math and computer science, usually thought of as a foreign-dominated subject, comes in as the subject of choice for just under 12 percent of the total number of international students. Physical and life sciences? Less than 8 percent.

Rajika Bhandari, deputy vice president of research and evaluation at IIE, says the growth has more to do with the economy than American immigration policies. Rapidly growing economies with expanding middle classes are now able to afford a global education, she says. That includes India, which contributed “significantly” to last year’s growth. The number of Indian students in the U.S. had seen a decline in prior years because of the value of the rupee against the dollar, but once the currency stabilized, so did education opportunities. Last year, India sent 132,888 students to the U.S., a nearly 30 percent jump from the previous year, behind only China’s 304,040, up 11 percent.

For the universities, of course, foreign students are a bottom-line boon: Nearly 64 percent of funding for foreign students’ study comes from personal resources, like their families, instead of from scholarships or student aid. At public universities, foreign students typically pay the full sticker, out-of-state price for tuition. But EducationUSA, a U.S. government program to recruit students abroad, plays a role too, says Marianne Craven, managing director of academic programs for the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Also contributing is a “broad recognition of the role that international education plays in the creation of a more prosperous and secure world,” she says. And even more important? Scholarships from other countries. Like Brazil, where a new science and engineering study-abroad scholarship increased its U.S.-based student population by more than 78 percent.

Bhandari says this uptick isn’t likely to subside next year, despite some of the anti-immigrant rhetoric making headlines in the current U.S. presidential campaign. International students are “quite resilient to this sort of rhetoric,” Bhandari says. They know that the sticks and stones — law in the U.S. — hurt more than hollow words. As for the Department of State’s part, Craven says it will “maintain its commitment to attracting students and scholars from around the world,” because student mobility is “essential for the next generation of leaders.”

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