International Student Numbers in US Reach All-Time High, Decline in New Enrollments Stabilizes

November 18, 2019 Updated: November 24, 2019

The number of international students in the United States set an all-time high during the 2018-2019 academic year, while fewer new foreign students started classes in U.S institutions, according to new statistics from the “Open Doors” report.

According to the 2019 Open Doors Report released Tuesday by the State Department-sponsored Institute of International Education (IIE), international student numbers in the US increased by 0.05 percent in the 2018-2019 academic year to mark an all-time high of 1,095,299, the fourth consecutive year with more than one million international students.

Despite the escalating tension between Washington and Beijing on almost every front, China remained the primary place of origin for international students in the United States in the tenth consecutive year with 369,548 students, a 1.7 percent increase on 2017-2018. India, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Canada made up the rest of the top five exporting countries.

International students contributed nearly $45 billion to the American economy, and supported over 455,000 American jobs last year, the State Department said in a statement celebrating the 2019 International Education Week.

In the 2017-2018 academic year, 341,751 U.S. students went to study abroad, a 2.7 percent increase over the previous year. Europe remained the most popular destination for American students who pursue overseas higher education. The United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, France, and Germany are the top five hosts of Americans study abroad.

The latest statistics also saw a 0.9 percent drop in new enrollments at U.S. institutions in 2018-2019, continuing a trend that began in 2015-2016. The enrollment in undergraduate programs, graduate programs and non-degree programs declined by 2.4 percent, 1.3 percent and 5 percent, respectively.

“What we’ve seen today is a dramatically better picture compared to last year’s declines, where we had a decline of 6.6 percent [in new enrollments], and that stabilized to a drop of 0.9 percent,” Caroline Casagrande, deputy assistant secretary of State for Academic Programs, said during the press conference announcing the release of the Open Doors report. “In the last 10 years international student numbers have grown each year. And so we know globally that students do value American higher education.”

Despite the declines, the overall number of international students in the U.S. still grew, mostly due to the sharp 9.6 percent increase in the enrollment of Optional Practical Training (OPT) programs. After obtaining science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) degrees from American colleges or universities, OPT students have opportunities to remain in the country to work in their respective field for up to a year with student visas.

Allan E. Goodman, president and CEO of the IIE, attributed last academic year’s decreasing number of new enrollments to the rising cost of American higher education.

“Everywhere I travel, talking with parents and students, (the) No. 1 concern they have is about cost,” Goodman said. “American higher education is expensive. It is more expensive than other countries. And I’d say there’s always a mix of factors that go into deciding who will come, where they’ll come, where they’ll go, but overwhelmingly that is what is most on parents’ mind.”