International Enrollments Rebound From COVID-19 Pandemic

A strong surge from first-time and graduate student enrollment helps fill in the hole left by the COVID-19 pandemic.
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  • Students from India played a key role in the recovery of international enrollment in the U.S.
  • There was, however, a sizable decline in undergraduate enrollment from China.
  • Sub-Saharan Africa continued to make strides in asserting itself as a growing source of international students.

International students still clamor to earn their degree in the U.S., a recent analysis of enrollment trends found.

The 2022 Open Doors report from the Institute of International Education (IIE) found a 3.8% rise in total international students from the 2020-21 academic year. While that isn't enough to bring total international enrollment to pre-pandemic levels, the number of first-time enrollees (262,000) mirrors the three years before the pandemic.

All in all, it's a positive progression for higher education, IIE's head of research Mirka Martel said during a Wednesday press call.

Moreover, a fall 2022 snapshot of international enrollments points to a continued positive trajectory, Martel said.

China maintained its lead as the country with the most students studying at U.S. colleges and universities (290,000 students), despite an 8.6% drop in students from the prior academic year. India remained second (199,000 students), thanks to an 18.9% gain from the previous year.

These two countries send over half of all international students in the U.S.

South Korea, Canada, and Vietnam round out the top five, according to the 2022 Open Doors report.

A Graduate Student Surge

Pent-up demand contributed to a substantial surge in graduate enrollments, particularly among first-time students coming to the U.S.

Some places of origin that reported overall declines also reported an increase in graduate student enrollments.

China, for example, saw an overall decline of nearly 9% from last year. Still, graduate student enrollment increased nearly 4% from the previous year.

Allan Goodman, CEO of IIE, said this may be partly due to the fact that graduate students tend to be older and more likely to make decisions independently. Undergraduate students, meanwhile, are more reliant on their families to send them to school overseas. COVID-19 travel restrictions continue to prevent U.S. college recruiters from visiting China regularly.

Martel added that this is the first time in over a decade there were more international graduate students than undergraduates.

There was strong interest in master's programs, she said. International students' enrollment for master's degrees was up 29% from the 2020-21 academic year.

She said this is not necessarily a sign of things to come.

China v. India

India made significant gains on China as the top country of origin for international students.

While India still has plenty of ground to make up, Martel said the two have swapped places in the past.

She said in the late 1990s, China held the lead as the top sender of students to the U.S. In the early 2000s, however, India was the top country of origin before it flipped back to China.

Historically, there have been some fluctuations, she said.

Africa Rises as a Key Source of Students

African countries, and sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, made gains as the region continues to assert itself as a valuable source of international students.

African International Student Enrollment Trends
Place of Origin 2020-21 2021-22 Percent Change
East Africa 9,319 10,157 9%
Central Africa 2,899 2,871 -1%
Southern Africa 6,035 6,516 8%
West Africa 20,808 22,974 10.4%
North Africa 6,282 6,790 8.1%

Martel specifically pointed to Nigeria as a country showing a positive enrollment trend. She said with over 14,000 Nigerians studying in the U.S. last year, the country reached highs not seen since the mid-1980s.

Certainly, there is a positive picture here and speaks to an emerging market of international students, she said.

Sub-Saharan Africa was the only major geographic region — other than North America, which only includes Canada — to boast a higher enrollment total in the 2021-22 academic year than 2019-20, according to data from past Open Doors reports. Within the region, this was true for east, south, and west Africa.

The STEM Takeover

Once upon a time, students came to the U.S. primarily to study business.

Now, many students are coming to study science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Martel said 54% of all international students studied in these fields in 2021-22.

Graduate students drive that percentage.

Approximately 62% of all graduate students were pursuing STEM, compared to 40% of all undergraduates. Additionally, 72% of international students participating in optional practical training (OPT) did so in a STEM field.

Within STEM, math and computer science surpassed engineering as the top degree focus last year, Martel said.