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5 Significant Trends in the US International Student Market

Over the years, the United States managed to retain its stature as the top study destination for international students.  Learners are drawn by the high quality of US higher education, its value on the international labor market, and access to job opportunities in the US after graduation. As proof of this market edge, the United States recorded a staggering international enrollment of about 1.1 million in the academic year 2019-20.


Other than looking at the overall enrollment numbers, it is essential to look at the other important aspects that describe the flow and interests of foreign students in the country, to understand and get a better picture of the state of international education in the US. It can also guide institutions in shaping their approach toward global student recruitment.


Using data from the Institute of International Education (IIE), in this article, we present the current international student trends within the United States:

Key Takeaways:

  • The number of new international students in the US has continued to decline since 2016 — chiefly attributed to unfriendly visa policies and problematic political climate.
  • The current international student population makes up about 6% of the total learners across the US.
  • STEM and business courses are the most preferred by foreign students.
  • International students are highly concentrated in California, New York, and Texas.
  • China continues to be the largest source of international students in 2020 despite the pandemic.

1. New International Students

recent intl student trend chart

The number of new international students enrolling at US institutions dropped in 2016-17 and has continued to decrease since then. In the 2019-20 school year, 268,000 new international students enrolled in US institutions.


Among the key contributors to this decline were the increasing costs of US higher education, high numbers of student visa denials, a challenging political environment for immigrants under the Trump administration, and the availability of opportunities to study in other countries.


The COVID-19 pandemic has further worsened these issues faced by foreign learners. At the start of the Fall 2020 semester, the total number of international students enrolled in US schools, including those physically present in the United States and studying online from abroad, decreased by 16 percent from the previous year. The number of new international students fell as more chose to defer their studies.


2. Proportion in Higher Education

intl student proportion

The number of international students enrolled in US colleges and universities has seen strong overall growth since the 1950s. Beginning with just 26,000 international students in the 1949-50 school year, the number of students reached almost 1.1 million in 2019-20. 


International students have also grown as a share of all students enrolled in US higher education: from 1 percent in 1949–50 to nearly 6 percent in 2019-20.

3. Fields of Study

intl student field

Engineering, math and computer science, and business and management were the top three fields of study for international students in the school year 2019-20, accounting for more than half of all international enrollment at US higher education institutions.


Particularly, 52 percent of international students were in STEM fields and were eligible for the extended 36-month Optional Practical Training (OPT) upon graduation.

4. States Hosting Most International Learners

In the academic year 2019-20, one in three international students studied in California, New York, or Texas. Other leading host states were Massachusetts, Illinois, and Pennsylvania. Based on the Open Doors findings international students are said to be more evenly spread out across the country than the overall US foreign-born population.

intl student destination

5. COVID-19 Impact: Change in Enrollment Numbers in Leading Places of Origin

origin of intl students

China, the largest source of international students for the US, still managed to send new students despite the pandemic. A bulk of the new enrollees were engaged in remote studies or have visas that have been approved before the COVID-related travel restrictions were implemented. 


Meanwhile, both India and South Korea sent a lesser number of new students to the US as many did not want to engage in the online learning setup mainly because of the time difference, lack of study resources, and internet connectivity concerns.

What Do the Figures Say?

Motivated by its initiatives on reducing immigration, the Trump administration made it harder for foreigners, including international students, to enter or remain in the United States. In contrast, the Biden administration has sworn to increase the number of visas for highly skilled workers, lessen visa backlogs, and speed up visa and citizenship application processing. 


The change in rhetoric and new policy directions may aid in reversing enrollment declines and open more post-graduation opportunities for international students.


Reflecting on the numbers, one may think that international enrollment is going downhill but the United States’ stance on global education remains strong as the country continues to receive the most number of foreign learners.  


If the latest concerns in visa approvals and more study-work-immigration pathways are introduced, international enrollment is expected to shoot up and the US will seal its spot as irrefutably the most ideal study destination across the globe. (SUNEETHA QURESHI)

MSM VP Global Suneetha Qureshi

MSM President-Global Marketing Office (GMO)

Suneetha has more than 10 years of experience in the international education sector. As president of MSM GMO, she fortifies its business development outreach globally, particularly in the face of MSM’s foray in edtech-based recruitment via MSM Unify. She preserves the premium, value-adding services provided to each GMO partner institution, including dedicated teams on the ground, agent management, lead generation and inquiry management, application pre-screening, and student and parent support through pioneering pre-departure briefing sessions.


She has an impeccable track record of successfully launching the representative offices in Asia and Africa of many North American and European higher education institutions. Her key strengths include hiring, training, and developing teams as evidenced by the successful results of the dedicated in-country college and university client teams.

Suneetha also has taken the lead in developing several initiatives at MSM, including building robust standard operating procedures, the Rise ‘n Shine team engagement platform, and the organization’s data analytics and audit segments.



Batalova, E., & Batalova, J. (2021, February 2). International Students in the United States. migrationpolicy.org. https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/international-students-united-states-2020


Institute of International Education Open Doors / International Students. (2020, June 24). https://opendoorsdata.org/data/international-students/


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