International College Student Enrollment Nears Pre-Pandemic Levels: Report

After a multiyear lull, the number of international students studying in the U.S. is comparable to pre-pandemic levels.
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Matthew Arrojas is a news reporter at BestColleges covering higher education issues and policy. He previously worked as the hospitality and tourism news reporter at the South Florida Business Journal. He also covered higher education policy issues as...
Published on November 13, 2023
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  • The number of international students studying in the U.S. grew 11.5% during the 2022-23 academic year.
  • A 35% increase in the number of students from India contributed to that growth.
  • The Institute of International Education's report also showed a jump in students coming from sub-Saharan Africa.
  • China remains the largest supplier of international students for the U.S.

U.S. colleges and universities have seemingly recovered from the pandemic-era lull in international enrollments, a new report found.

The Institute of International Education's (IIE) Open Doors 2023 Report, which surveyed approximately 3,000 institutions, found that over 1 million international students studied at U.S. colleges and universities during the 2022-23 academic year. It's the first time that international enrollments surpassed the 1 million mark since the 2019-20 academic year, essentially showing a rebound to pre-pandemic norms.

The 1.06 million international students enrolled during the latest school year was an 11.5% increase from the year prior. IIE said that's the fastest growth rate in more than 40 years.

In some areas, international enrollments have surpassed even pre-pandemic highs.

Nearly 300,000 international students enrolled for the first time at a U.S. institution during the 2022-23 academic year. That's the most first-time students since the 2015-16 school year, according to Open Doors data.

Mirka Martel, head of research at IIE, said during a Wednesday press call that these are promising figures for the future of international education in the U.S.

"The U.S. continues to be the top destination for international students," she said.

A Tight Race Between China, India

China has long been the leading source of international students for U.S. institutions, and while that's still the case, India is quickly closing the gap.

China supplied 289,526 international students during the 2022-23 academic year, which constituted 27.4% of all international students studying in the U.S., according to Open Doors. However, it was also a 0.2% decrease from the year prior.

India, meanwhile, sent 268,923 students to the U.S. during the same period. That was a 35% increase from the year prior.

Together, Chinese and Indian students make up more than half (52.8%) of all international students in the U.S.

Martel explained that the stagnation from China may still be attributed to the country's strict COVID-19 travel restrictions.

Indian students, meanwhile, are seeking a U.S. graduate school education. Open Doors reported 63% year-over-year growth in the number of graduate students from India. A large part of this growth, Martel said, is for master's programs.

Sub-Saharan Africa Asserts Itself as a Key International Player

BestColleges previously reported that sub-Saharan Africa was on the verge of becoming the next major source of international students.

The latest Open Doors report bears out many of those predictions.

Nigeria and Ghana are both in the top 25 countries that send the highest number of students to the U.S. Martel said it is the first time in over a decade that two countries from sub-Saharan Africa cracked the top 25.

Overall, Open Doors found an 18.1% increase in the number of sub-Saharan African students studying in the U.S. during the 2022-23 academic year. That was the largest year-over-year change of the six major regions IIE categorizes.

Nigerian enrollments grew 22% and Ghanan enrollments grew 32%, Martel said.

However, sub-Saharan Africa's gains didn't just come from those two countries. She said Kenya, Ethiopia, and South Africa reported sizable increases, too.

Country of Origin 2022-23 Student Enrollment Percent Change From Year Prior
Nigeria 17,640 22.2%
Ghana 6,468 31.6%
Kenya 4,059 6.8%
Ethiopia 3,006 12.2%
South Africa 2,713 14.2%
Zimbabwe 1,789 18.7%
Democratic Republic of Congo 1,660 31.1%
Rwanda 1,372 11.9%
Uganda 1,088 20.2%
Cameroon 1,086 17.2%
Source: Open Doors 2023 Report

Martel added that she doesn't expect these gains to stop.

IIE's fall 2023 snapshot survey found that 40% of surveyed institutions plan to focus their graduate student recruitment efforts in Nigeria, she said. Three in four institutions anticipate new enrollment growth from Nigerian students.

"What we're seeing is that recruitment is very strong," Martel said. "Those numbers continue to look strong in the 2023-24 academic year."

Marianne Craven, managing director of academic programs at the U.S. Department of State, said during the press call that the department is pleased to see enrollment growth from this region.

"We're glad to see the growing diversity of countries,” she said. "We are committed to continuing [our] efforts."

International Enrollments Grow Across Most States

Enrollment increases weren't relegated to just a few states, as 48 of 50 states saw an increase in the number of international students enrolled at their institutions.

Alaska (-3.7%) and Oregon (-3.1%) were the only states to report a drop.

California and New York continued to host the most international students, with 138,000 and 127,000 in each state, respectively. California saw a 3.2% increase from the year prior, and New York reported an 11.5% increase.

The No. 3 spot changed during the 2022-23 academic year.

Texas jumped Massachusetts for this spot with 81,000 students. Texas reported a 15% increase from the 2021-22 school year.

Connecticut had the largest year-over-year increase of all states. Its 17,000 international students in 2022-23 was a 35.4% increase from the year prior.