International student enrollment post-pandemic hits biggest stride, tops 1 million

As strongly as enrollment has bounced back, current numbers still slouch to pre-pandemic levels. The most recent data still puts current enrollment 40,000 shy of the 2018-19 academic year.

International student enrollment continues to rebound since travel restrictions laid waste to foreign student prospects. Three years removed from the pandemic, enrollment has once again topped 1 million students, according to Open Doors, the primary data tool for international students in the U.S. and those studying abroad.

At 1,057,188 international students in the 2022-23 academic year, the 12% year-over-year growth is the largest in more than 40 years and the largest in Open Doors’ data collection history, said Mirka Martel, Head of Research, Evaluation and Learning at International Education Exchange, during the online release announcement. Year-over-year growth in 2021-22 was 4%.

These numbers illustrate an impressive comeback from enrollment in 2020-21, which fell by 15%.

Open Doors collected data across nearly 3,000 U.S. higher education institutions in 2022-23 for these findings. Forty-eight states reported increases in international students. California, New York, Texas, Massachusetts and Illinois experienced the highest growth, gaining at least 50,000 students.

The surge in international students was primarily driven by students pursuing graduate programs. At 21%, this rate is the highest ever recorded by Open Doors as well. Graduate students mainly sought master’s degrees, which saw a 47% increase. While undergraduate international student growth was just 1%, it’s the first positive rate in the past five years. At approximately 467,000 students, there are 120,000 more graduate-level students than undergraduate students.

As strong as enrollment has bounced back, current numbers still slouch to pre-pandemic levels. The most recent data still puts current enrollment 40,000 shy of the 2018-19 academic year.

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, international students contributed almost $38 billion to the U.S. economy and supported over 335,000 American jobs.

“International education doesn’t just benefit individuals,” said U.S. Department of State Secretary Antony Blinken. “It’s also vital to American diplomacy, our economic competitiveness, even to our national security.”

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China and India continue to dominate enrollment numbers

China and India account for the highest rates of international students by far, making up 53% of all foreign students in the U.S. This is a 1% increase over the 2017-18 academic year. India and China toppled over other countries, each sending more than 250,000 students overseas. Numbers from South Korea, which sends the third-most learners, are less than 50,000.

While China still sends more students to the U.S. than India, its growth rate has stagnated since the pandemic. On the other hand, India’s growth rate was 35%. But don’t expect a mix of Indian students across all program levels; 62% come to the U.S. strictly for graduate studies, while only 12% come for undergraduate programs. India already bests China in U.S. international student enrollment at the graduate level.

Other countries with high growth rates across all academic programs are Ghana (32%), Bangladesh (28%), Nepal (28%) and Pakistan (16%).

Most popular fields of study

Several fields stand out as the most popular.

  • Math and computer science: 240,230 students (+20%)
  • Engineering: 202,801 students (+8%)
  • Business and management: 157,281 students (+7%)
  • Social sciences: 85,998 students (+9%)
  • Physical and life sciences: 84,830 students (+8%)
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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