Record Numbers of Foreign Students

Record Numbers of Foreign Students

By Laura Secorun Palet

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Record numbers of international students in American universities could mean very good things for the national economy and the U.S.’s world image.

By Laura Secorun Palet

According to a recent report by the Institute of International Education, U.S universities enrolled 819,644 international students last year. This is a historic record and represents a 7.2 percent increase from the previous year. But where are these students coming from and where are they going?

Academic year 2012/2013


Number of international students enrolled in U.S. universities


Percentage increase from the number of international students enrolled in 2011/2012

Where do they come from?

The data shows that much of this growth has been fueled by students from China. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, spurred by government-sponsored scholarships, are the second and third sources of students.


Percentage growth in enrollments by undergraduates from China


Percentage growth in enrollments by students from Saudi Arabia


Percentage growth in enrollments by students from Kuwait 

Where are they going to class?

The distribution of these students has not been uniform. Nearly 70 percent of foreign students are concentrated in about 200 schools; in particular, 25 colleges, 18 of which are public, attract 21 percent of the students.

The top four schools are:

  1. University of Southern California – 9,840 students
  2. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign – 9,804 students
  3. Purdue University – 9,509 students
  4. New York University – 9,362 students

Economic Uplift

Even if the economic benefits of this inflow aren’t evenly distributed, international students pump an estimated $24 billion into the U.S. economy overall. And this number reflects more than tuition fees — it also accounts for research, innovation and business endeavors.  

Foreign students could therefore be a golden goose for many universities struggling financially after severe cuts in federal funding and research grants. Even top-tier schools like Harvard and Yale might want to increase their international admissions to help offset their $34-million and $39-million deficits.

Burnish that Image

Beyond the economic impact, many think the increase in foreign students could be key to improving diplomatic relations between the U.S. and foreign countries. Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs, Evan Ryan,  thinksinternational education promotes the relationship building and knowledge exchange between people and communities in the United States and around the world that are necessary to solve global challenges.”

A point that’s especially relevant to the relationships between the U.S. and China since virtually every major international issue — from nuclear proliferation to climate change — calls for greater collaboration between the two countries.

Outward Bound?

Students from the U.S. are not immune to the appeal of an international education. The figures are somewhat less spectacular, but this year has also seen an all-time high in Americans choosing to study abroad:


Number of American students studying abroad in 2012-2013


Percentage increase from the number of American students studying abroad in 2011/2012

Roll Call

The U.S. may be host to the highest total number of international students, but they only make up a small percentage of the overall U.S. student population, and that percentage trails behind other nations.

International students by host nation
Percentage of international students in the overall student population
United Kingdom 10
Australia 7
Germany 7
Canada 5
Russia 4
United States 3.5

As the world grows increasingly interconnected, the number of international students is likely to keep rising. As Allan Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education, puts it, “We still have room to expand.”