International Student Enrollment Statistics

International student enrollment rose for decades before a sharp decline caused by COVID-19. Now, enrollment is on the rebound.

Edited by Lyss Welding
International Student Enrollment Statistics
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Data Summary

  • Around 710,000 international students were enrolled in higher education in the U.S. in 2020-2021.[1]
  • Another roughly 200,000 were gaining work experience closely related to their degree for a limited period after graduating.[1]
  • The number of international students in the U.S. has been climbing for decades.[1]
  • The pandemic caused the steepest decline in international student enrollment ever seen -- 15%.[1]
  • International student enrollment is on the rebound from its pandemic drop.
  • The countries with the most students studying in the U.S. are China and India -- these countries are also the world's most populous.

The U.S. has long topped the list for many international students looking to pursue a degree outside their home country. The U.S. hosts almost twice as many visiting college students as the next-leading destination for international students, according to 2020 data from the Institute of International Education (IIE).[2]

While the number of international students in the U.S. has steadily climbed for decades, the COVID-19 pandemic prompted dramatic declines in enrollment. This report will provide insights into international student enrollment trends and enrollment figures by country of origin, degree level, and field of study.

Take a Closer Look at College Enrollment Statistics

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Number of International College Students in the U.S.

During the 2020-21 school year:

  • 710,210 international students were enrolled in higher education in the U.S.[1]
  • Another roughly 203,885 were working in fields related to their studies for a limited period of time after finishing their degree program in the U.S. (This work experience period is also known as "optional practical training" or OPT, which international students can participate in for 1-2 years.)[1]
  • The total number of international students (including those enrolled in a program and those working after school in OPT) represents about 4.6% of the nearly 20 million college students in the U.S. in 2020-21.[1]
  • The number of international students decreased by around 15% compared to the previous academic year.[1]
  • Over 70% of international students were from Asia, with almost 35% from China and about 18% from India.[3] China and India are the two largest countries by population, each with around 1.4 billion residents. (The U.S. has about 340 million.)[4]
  • Compared to prior years, there was an increase in international students from Asia and a decrease in international students from Europe and Latin America.[3]

International Student Enrollment Trends

Prior to the pandemic, international student enrollment reached an all-time high.[1]

  • During the five years before COVID-19 hit, the number of international students in the U.S. reached over 1 million.
  • The total number of international students hit its peak in 2018, with just over 1,095,000 students. This included roughly 872,000 enrolled students and 223,000 completing optional practical training.
  • The number of enrolled international students (excluding those on OPT) hit its high point in 2016, with just over 903,000 students.
  • The number of international students has steadily climbed since the earliest data from 1950, with brief dips in the early '70s, mid-2000s, and 2020.

Source: IIE[1]

The Impact of Covid-19 on International College Student Enrollment

The Covid-19 pandemic had a significant impact on international students studying in the U.S. Countrywide travel bans and confusing, rapidly-shifting ICE rules made for a fraught spring semester for this group of students.

As was anticipated, in the fall of 2020 international student enrollment saw dramatic declines:

  • Overall international student enrollment dropped 15% from the year prior — the largest dip ever recorded (the second-largest decline was a mere 3.2% in 1971).[1]
  • The number of enrolled international students (excluding those on OPT) dropped nearly 17%.[1]
  • New student enrollment among international students fell a whopping 46%.[5]

However, there were signs of a rebound just a year later. Fall 2021 brought:[5]

  • A 4% increase in total international students in the U.S.
  • An 8% increase in enrolled international students.
  • A 43% increase in international student applications.
  • A 68% increase in new international students.

And the rebound seems to be gaining strength. In spring 2022, 65% of surveyed institutions reported an increase in international applications for fall 2022.[6]

International Student Enrollment by Country

For the past forty years, the region with the highest number of international students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities is Asia. However, the share of Asian international students has increased dramatically, from about 30% of all international students in 1980 to around 70% of all international students in 2020.[3]

This increase brings the number of Asian students studying in the U.S. more in line with world population figures — about 60% of the world's total population lives in Asia.[7]

Two Asian countries stand out in particular: China and India. In the decade between 2005 and 2015, the number of Chinese students studying at U.S. colleges increased by more than five times.

Source: NCES[3]

India's international student enrollment has now reached a level proportional to their share of the world population — around 18%. But China's has skyrocketed to 35%, though China is also home to about 18% of the world's population.[8]

Did You Know…

Many factors contribute to how many students visit the U.S. from different regions, including age demographics and college choice in international students' home countries, recruitment practices from U.S. institutions, financial aid availability, and economic conditions in students' countries of origin.

Some experts believe that we will see an increase in international students from Africa in coming years.

During the 2020-21 school year:[3]

  • About 43% of international students were from East Asia (almost 400,000 students).
  • Approximately 27% of international students (about 250,000 students) were from South, Southeast, and Central Asia.
  • Only about 8% of international students were from Central and South America, 7% were from Europe, 6% were from the Middle East and North Africa, and 4% were from Sub-Saharan Africa.

Source: NCES[3]

International Student Enrollment by Degree Type

A similar number of international students were enrolled in graduate and undergraduate programs during the 2020-21 school year.[9]

Source: IIE[9]

There have been a roughly equal number of undergraduate and graduate international students for at least the past ten years, with the share of graduate international students lagging behind undergraduates by just a few percentage points.[9]

The 2020-2021 school year saw an almost 17% drop in enrolled international students compared to the previous year. But some degree levels took a harder hit than others:[9]

  • The number of international students seeking an associate degree decreased by almost 21%.
  • The number of international students seeking a master's degree also decreased by about 21%.
  • International students enrolled in non-degree programs saw the most notable decrease — almost 64% compared to the year before.

As for the 2021-22 school year, a June 2021 report from IIE noted that applications varied by school type:[10]

  • 59% of universities with doctoral programs reported an increase in international student applications from the year before.
  • While 58% of community colleges reported a decline in applications from the previous year.

International Student Enrollment by Field of Study

Not all majors are equally popular with international students. Of the over 900,000 international students in the U.S. during the 2020-2021 academic year, the five most common fields of study were:[11]

  1. Engineering, at almost 21%.
  2. Math and computer science, at nearly 20%.
  3. Business and management, at nearly 16%.
  4. Social sciences, at around 8%.
  5. Physical and life sciences, at around 8%.

Take a Closer Look at College Enrollment Statistics

Explore all college enrollment statistics

Frequently Asked Questions About International Students in the U.S.

What percentage of college students are international?

As of 2021, 4.6% of college students were international students. This is a significant decrease from the previous school year when 5.5% of college students were international. The average change in the percentage of international students from year to year is usually about 0.1%.[1]

How many international college students are in the U.S.?

As of the 2020-21 school year, there are over 700,000 international students enrolled in academic programs in the U.S. and an additional roughly 200,000 students who are completing optional practical training (gaining work experience related to their degree for a limited period of time after graduating). Together, this amounts to over 900,000 students, which is lower than in previous years.[1]

How many international students come to the U.S. each year?

In the five years before the pandemic, about 1.1 million international students were enrolled in U.S. colleges or universities or were completing optional practical training (work experience related to their degree immediately after graduating). During the 2020-21 academic year, that number dipped to a little over 900,000.[1]