The latest Open Doors data indicates yet another year of growth in international student enrollment. Between 2009 and 2014, the number of international students has increased by 41 per cent to reach a total of 974,926. They contributed over $30 billion to the U.S. economy during the 2014-2015 academic year, according to NAFSA: Association of International Educators.
In last ten years, international enrollments skyrocketed at some institutions, while others have lagged behind, resulting in an imbalance which can have negative implications for both institutions and individuals. Despite the growth, the proportion of international students to total US higher education enrollment is only 4.8 per cent. There is also a skew in terms of source countries. More than half of all international students in the US come from four countries, China, India, South Korea and Saudi Arabia.
Often, international students are lumped as one monolithic block and their diversity of motivations, barriers, needs, and expectations for coming to study in the US is compromised. Here is a snapshot from the recent data that highlights the diversity of international students in the US as reflected by their country of education and level of education.
The number of Chinese "explorer" students continues to grow, especially at the undergraduate level. This is consistent with the large upper middle-class population that invests in the international education experience of their single child. In fall 2014, the number of Chinese students on Optional Practical Training (OPT) (temporary employment of 29 months for STEM majors or 12 months for all other majors) increased to by 29 per cent to reach 43,000 students. In my previous analysis, I projected this continued growth of Chinese students, despite economic turbulence.
India market is characterized by "value-seeking" students who want to minimize cost and maximize employment prospects. Thus, the number of Indian students expanded at the graduate level (mostly master's level in STEM programs) which provides them better pathways for finding jobs in Information Technolgy industry. Consistent with my previous analysis of an emerging wave of "highflier" Indian students, the enrollment at undergraduate level have increased by nearly 30 per cent.
South Korea is witnessing the same pattern of declining number of students coming to the US as Japan. This is a function of a number of factors including decreasing gap in quality of life and earnings between Korea and the US, increasing options of improved quality education available in Korea and finally, demographic factors which are resulting in a shrinking population. Given a higher ability of paying for education, more Korean students come at the undergraduate level, more than double than the number of Indian students.
The majority of Saudi students are studying in undergraduate level programs and their primary pathway is through "non-degree" which include Intensive English Preparation (IEP) programs. In contrast to Chinese, Indian and Korean students the growth of Saudi students has been supported by Saudi scholarships. At the same time, very few Saudi students are on OPT which indicates that majority will not gain work experience in the US.
This analysis of enrollment pattern of just four countries illustrates that international students are driven by a diverse and complex set of motivations and expectations for coming to the US. The rest of the countries bring their own nuances and characteristics in terms of student drivers of mobility. To maintain the competitiveness and leadership of American higher education institutions as the destination of global talent, lot more needs to be done in terms of understanding the richness of the international student diversity and invest in improving their academic and career success in the US.