International students return in big numbers, and here’s what they want to study

First-time international student enrollment has returned to pre-pandemic levels as the number of U.S. students studying abroad is also recovering.

More than 948,000 international students attended U.S. colleges and universities in 2021-22, a 4% increase from the previous school year, according to the annual “Open Doors 2022 Report on International Educational Exchange,” released Monday by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the Institute of International Education. Another piece of good news for higher ed leaders is that an overwhelming majority of international students—90%—returned for in-person learning last year (that number was around 50% in 2020-21.)

The U.S. remains the most popular destination for international students, with a fall 2022 snapshot of more than 630 campuses showing continued international student enrollment growth. Those colleges and universities are reporting a 9% increase in international students at all academic levels and in Optional Practical Training programs that allow individuals to gain work experience after academic study. A large majority of these institutions also reported that spending on international student recruitment is the same or higher than in 2021.

Highlights of international student enrollment in 2022

The number of international students enrolled for the first time soared by 80% in 2021-22, with 44 states seeing an increase of greater than 50%, the Open Doors report found.

“Despite the complexity and uncertainty that accompany pandemics, international educational exchanges continue,” said Allan E. Goodman, CEO of the Institute of International Education. “Investment in international exchange remains the best way for educational institutions and countries to connect people and ideas around the world.”

China continued to send the most international students to the U.S., followed by India. The two countries accounted for more than half of international student enrollment in the U.S., even though there was a 9% decline in Chinese students in 2021-22. India sent 19% more students last year compared to 2020-21.

(Graphic: OpenDoors)

The number of international students from 12 of the top 25 sending countries increased by double digits, with India, Canada, Mexico, and Nigeria returning to pre-pandemic levels. Nigeria sent its largest increase—12% year over year—since the 1980s.

When it comes to what international students are studying, math and computer science surpassed engineering and business in 2021-22 as the leading fields of study. These students also contributed $32 billion to the U.S. economy in 2021, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Study abroad is also recovering

More than 80% of U.S. colleges and universities reported sending more students abroad in spring 2022 than in the previous year, according to an Open Doors snapshot. That’s also good news considering COVID sent study abroad levels plunging by 90% in 2020-21 when less than 15,000 U.S. students went to colleges overseas.

Study abroad rebounded by more than 520% in the summer of 2021, but the full numbers for the 2021-22 school year are not yet available.

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Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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