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Understanding the US International Student Market

In the past few months, we have seen a plethora of reports on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on global business and these are generally not something to be happy about. As expected, the international education sector has not been spared. Because of border closures and stringent travel protocols implemented by countries, international enrollment numbers have plummeted considerably.

The recent Open Doors survey conducted by the US Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the Institute of International Education (IIE) in over 700 colleges and universities in the United States reveals that nearly 40,000 international students have chosen to defer their enrollment during the fall semester. Due to the pandemic-related travel and immigration restrictions, international enrollees often had no choice but to postpone their study plans. 

Although the majority of the international students who were previously enrolled and are staying in the US have signified their intention to continue their studies, the reduced number of new international students entering the country now poses a huge challenge to many institutions. Based on records, the influx of new international students into US schools has plummeted by 43 percent from the previous year. 

International students have had a huge economic impact even amid the pandemic, contributing $38.7 billion to the US economy this year and supporting nearly half a million jobs. I have written quite a bit about why the US continues to be a welcoming place for global learners due to the initiatives of higher education schools. 

This time, let’s take a closer look at the US international student market itself and what makes it different from global learners from other countries. This article aims to help higher education institutions understand international students in the US better and plan effectively for the future.

The Composition

In 2019, among the 5.3 million international students all over the world, over one million or 23 percent were studying in US colleges and universities.

MSM Research Understanding the US International Student Market Pie Chart

Source: Project Atlas, IIE

Based on the data collected by the Institute of International Education (IIE), the countries that send the most students to the US are:

Countries that sends the most students to US

Source: Project Atlas, IIE

The majority of the top exporting countries in recent years are from Asia, with China as the leading source of international students, followed by India with over 200,000 students. When combined, students from these two countries compose 50 percent of the total foreign students in the entire United States.

Factors in Choosing a Study Destination

Based on the survey conducted by Quacquarelli Symonds, here are the primary factors that international students are considering when choosing where to study and what field they will take:

3 Factors in choosing a study destination

Source: Quacquarelli Symonds

Checking on the factors most regarded by foreign students, the US has all of these as it is home to many top universities that provide high-quality education. Moreover, many recognize that the US is the revered “land of opportunity” which not just provides international students first-rate education but also opens doors to overseas work experience.

Economic Impact of International Enrollment

It is known that the economic impact of international students is huge mainly because they pay relatively higher tuition fees. But where do these students get their tuition fee money? What are their sources of funding for expenses? The following table answers those questions. And regardless of where the budget comes from, it certainly brings a positive monetary impact to the US economy.

International Students In the U.S.

Source: 2020 Open Doors Survey, IIE

Apart from the monetary value, international students are vital to the competitiveness of the US’ workforce. According to NAFSA: Association of International Educators, 23 percent of the billion-dollar companies in the United States are founded or co-founded by people who were international students. Hence, these global learners studying and graduating from US academic institutions do not only become part of the human resource of the country but are also contributing to job generation that benefits the local population. The presence of international students contributes to the diversity of the student population and global harmony. 


International students also help the US maintain its global competitiveness by promoting its foreign policies and international leadership. In fact, 62 of the current world leaders received higher education in the US, more than in any other country. Furthermore, foreign students in the US account for some of the world’s renowned scientists and inventors thus helping in the growth of the country’s knowledge economy. As reported by Forbes, 40 percent of American Nobel prizes in chemistry, medicine, and physics since 2000 were awarded to immigrants.


The next question is: where do international students normally stay when they are in the United States? In almost every state, there are foreign students. Some states have even remained as centers for international education as some of the most popular universities are located there. Here are the top ten states that host the biggest number of international students:

MSM Research Understanding the US International Student Market (Top U.S. States Hosting International Students)

Source: 2020 Open Doors Survey, IIE

These states are identified to be the most welcoming environments as these have multicultural neighborhoods. As such, students easily adapt to the area, effectively minimizing the possibility of culture shock.

MSM Research - Understanding the US International Student Market

Source: 2020 Open Doors Survey, IIE

And here are the most popular majors for foreign learners in the US. Many international students begin their academic journey in the US by first studying an intensive English program then transfer to academic programs upon completing their English studies. The majority of international students enroll in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) courses. Business programs are also popular.

This is the composition of the US international student market, the courses they study, and what attracts them to the education system. Despite the travel ban and the stringent health measures implemented by source countries, foreign student enrollment in US schools remains strong with over one million students. And this was made possible by the universities and colleges’ fast transition to remote learning.

In the coming year, even if we are still dealing with the pandemic, the US international enrollment is expected to gradually increase as the availability of the COVID-19 vaccine signals an impending return to some semblance of normalcy. The downturn in trends due to the global health crisis and the controversial immigration policies may have shunned some foreign students but the fact that the US is still viewed by many as the most desirable study destination in the world will remain as the country’s edge in international education. Now is the time for many small and medium size U.S. universities and colleges to woven international enrollment into their future strategic enrollment plans.  (DR. ALEX PARNIA)

#PartnerForLife #HigherEducation #StudentRecruitment #InternationalEducation #MSM

MSM Research_President, MSM USA

President, MSM USA

Dr. Alex Parnia brings more than 35 years of experience performing a variety of successful roles at various academic institutions as a faculty member, campus Dean, Vice-President of Marketing and Enrollment, Executive Vice- President, Provost, and President. He specializes in crafting innovative and scalable solutions and matrices to enable exponential revenue increases for academic institutions. His list of commendable triumphs is never-ending and he has also created leadership programs and taught management and business courses at various academic institutions.

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Data Sources:

2019 Project Atlas Infographics. (n.d.). Retrieved December 28, 2020, from https://www.iie.org/Research-and-Insights/Project-Atlas/Explore-Data/Infographics/2019-Project-Atlas-Infographics


2020 Open Doors Survey. Released 2020, November 17. Retrieved December 26, 2020, from https://opendoorsdata.org/annual-release/


Anderson, S. (2016, October 17). Immigrants Flooding America With Nobel Prizes. Retrieved December 28, 2020, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/stuartanderson/2016/10/16/immigrants-flooding-america-with-nobel-prizes/?sh=459ab5e56cb6


How to Create Online Content that Drives Students to Your Institution. (2020, December 08). Retrieved December 28, 2020, from https://www.qs.com/portfolio-items/how-to-create-online-content-that-drives-students-to-your-institution/


Lu, M. (2020, February 24). The Impact of International Students on the U.S. Economy. Retrieved December 28, 2020, from https://www.visualcapitalist.com/international-students-impact-u-s-economy/



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