International Students Continue to Flock to U.S. Colleges, Grad Schools

The probability of having to pay the brunt of costs did not dampen enrollment numbers in 2011-2012.

Students from China make up about 25 percent of the international student population at American colleges.

Students from China make up about 25 percent of the international student population at American colleges.


More international students are studying in the United States—and are increasingly relying primarily on their own funds to do so. 

In the 2011-2012 school year, international student enrollment at both colleges and graduate schools in the United States increased, according to the "2012 Open Doors Report" released today by the Institute of International Education (IIE). In total, 764,321 students from abroad were enrolled at a U.S. institution, a 5.7 percent increase over 2010-2011. 

"The good news is that international students continue to come to the United States at a steadily expanding rate, and U.S. institutions still have plenty of capacity to receive these students and to provide very personalized care for the international students who are here," notes Peggy Blumenthal, senior counselor to the president at IIE. 

[Find out how colleges are encouraging international student engagement.] 

For students from any foreign country, a U.S. education is likely an expensive endeavor. International students are typically not eligible for financial aid programs through the U.S. government, scholarships are often limited, and some colleges even charge additional international student fees on top of tuition. 

In 2011-2012, 486,524 international undergraduate and graduate students used personal or family funds as their primary monetary source—a 6.1 percent increase over those who did so in 2010-2011, according to "Open Doors." In total, international students contributed about $21.81 billion to the U.S. economy in the last school year, according to an analysis of "Open Doors" data by NASFA: Association of International Educators. 

But while many international students do pay their own way, increasing numbers are finding outside sources willing to pay the brunt of their education costs. In 2011-2012, 9,670 international students said their primary source of funds was a foreign private sponsor, up 36.9 percent from the previous year, and 40,494 students were primarily supported by their current employer, a figure 20.4 percent higher than was reported in 2010-2011. 

An additional 164,394 students were primarily supported by a U.S. college or university, though that's down slightly from the 2010-2011 school year. 

[See which colleges give the most money to international students.] 

Getting institutional aid is more common for international graduate students than those in college, IIE's Blumenthal notes. Nonetheless, U.S. colleges saw bigger year-over-year jumps in international student enrollment than graduate schools in this year's report. In the 2011-2012 school year, 244,826 undergraduates from abroad were enrolled, 11.4 percent more than the year before. At the graduate level, 300,430 were studying here in 2011-2012, a 1.3 percent increase. 

Overall, Chinese students accounted for a quarter of all international students studying in the United States in 2011-2012: 194,029 students from China studied in the United States, 23 percent more than the year before. India sent the next-highest number of students—100,270—for the 2011-2012 year, and Saudi Arabia sent 34,139 students, 50 percent more than in 2010-2011. 

Saudi students are now the largest demographic of international students at Western Michigan University, says Juan Tavares, the school's director of international admissions and services. The school currently enrolls 333 Saudi students, about 60 more students than in the year before, he says. 

"We've had a long tradition of Saudi students coming to Western, even in the '70s and '80s," says Tavares, who notes that the school has designated officials who work mainly with students from Saudi Arabia, as well as an accepting environment in the surrounding town of Kalamazoo. "When they come, they feel welcome." 

Public schools, such as Western Michigan, enroll the majority of the international students who come to the United States for an education. Of the 25 institutions with the most international students in 2011-2012, about 20 were public schools, according to "Open Doors." The University of Southern California and the University of Illinois—Urbana-Champaign topped the list, enrolling 9,269 and 8,997 students from abroad, respectively.