E.g., 06/20/2024
E.g., 06/20/2024
International Students in the United States

International Students in the United States

Chinese students

Chinese students studying in New York City. (Photo: VIA Agency)

The United States has historically been the top destination for international students owing to its quality higher education system, welcoming culture, and relatively open labor market. Today, the United States remains the country of choice for the largest number of international students, hosting about 1.1 million of the 4.6 million enrolled worldwide in 2017. The next two destinations, the United Kingdom and China, hosted 11 percent and 10 percent, respectively. However, the U.S. share of globally mobile students dropped from 28 percent in 2001 to 24 percent in 2017, while the overall number of international students more than doubled in the same period.

In school year (SY) 2016–17, international enrollment in U.S. colleges and universities increased 3 percent from the prior year, the slowest growth rate since 2009–10. A total of 291,000 new international students enrolled at U.S. institutions in SY 2016–17, about 10,000 fewer than in SY 2015–16. Multiple factors contribute to slowed enrollment, including the rising cost of U.S. higher education, student visa delays and denials, and an environment increasingly marked by rhetoric and policies that make life more difficult for immigrants, as well as changing conditions and opportunities in home countries and increasing competition from other countries for students.

Using data from the Institute of International Education (IIE) and NAFSA: Association of International Educators, this Spotlight examines the population of international students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities in SY 2016–17, focusing on its size, geographic distribution, top institutions, countries of origin, levels and fields of study, economic impact, and transition into the U.S. labor market. Data on international students in the United States include currently enrolled students as well as graduates who remain on a student visa for Optional Practical Training (OPT), a period lasting from 12 to 36 months depending on the student’s field of study.  

Visa Categories

U.S. immigration law stipulates four categories of visas for foreign students and exchange visitors:

  • F-1 visa for full-time students at an academic institution (e.g. college, university, or high school) or in a language training program
  • M-1 visa for full-time students at a vocational or other nonacademic institution
  • F-3 or M-3 visa for nationals of Canada and Mexico who commute to the United States for full- or part-time study at academic (F-3) or vocational (M-3) institutions
  • J-1 visa for participants in an educational or cultural exchange program. This visa category includes college and university students as well as physicians, summer work-travel visitors, visiting professors, research and short-term scholars, teachers, and au pairs.

F-1 students are authorized for up to 12 months of Optional Practical Training (OPT) upon graduation and become eligible for another year of OPT when seeking a further postsecondary degree at a higher level. Once the OPT period ends, graduates must find an employer willing to sponsor them for a work visa (for example, an H-1B visa). However, students with a qualifying science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) degree are eligible for an OPT extension of up to 24 additional months. At the end of the extension, STEM graduates must receive a work visa to continue working legally. Spouses and children of foreign students and exchange visitors can enter the country by obtaining an F-2, M-2, or J-2 visa (depending on the visa category of the student), though they are not eligible to study or work in the United States unless they obtain their own student or work visa.

While most international students and exchange visitors return home, F-1 students may adjust their status to another visa category. These include family- and employer-sponsored categories, as well as the K-1 visa for fiancé(e)s of U.S. citizens. M-1s and J-1s may also adjust their status but must meet stricter requirements in most cases.

In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, with one of the hijackers having come on a student visa, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2003 implemented a program to collect, maintain, and manage information about all foreign students and exchange visitors during their stay in the United States. The program, called the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), tracks and monitors schools and programs, students, exchange visitors, and their dependents throughout the duration of approved participation in the U.S. education system. SEVIS requires all schools and related academic institutions to submit and regularly update student information electronically in a central database that can be accessed by the government.

As of March 5, 2018, roughly 1.21 million F-1 and M-1 students were enrolled and registered at more than 8,700 SEVIS-certified schools across the United States. While the number of certified schools has remained roughly the same in recent years, total enrollment has nearly doubled from 612,000 in 2006. Nearly 210,000 J-1 visitors were participating in certified exchange programs on March 5, 2018, up 36 percent from 154,000 in 2006.

According to the U.S. State Department, in the past decade, overall visa issuance to foreign students and exchange visitors increased significantly, reaching more than 1 million in fiscal year (FY) 2015 (the period from October 1, 2014 to September 30, 2015). However, visa issuance declined in the past two years, to roughly 814,000 in FY 2017. 

The following sections focus specifically on those international students who are either enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities or participating in OPT.

Enrollment Numbers and Trends

The number of international students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities—including continuing students and new ones—has experienced strong growth since the 1950s (see Figure 1). While there were just 26,000 foreign students enrolled in school year 1949–50, the number roughly doubled every decade, reaching 286,000 in 1979–80. It continued growing in the mid-2000s and 2010s, hitting a record high of 1.1 million in 2016–17. Foreign students also increased as a share of the total population enrolled in U.S. higher education: from 1 percent in 1949–50 to 5 percent in 2016–17.

Figure 1. International Students in U.S. Colleges and Universities and Share of Total Enrollment, (%), School Year (SY) 1949–50 to 2016–17

Source: Institute of International Education (IIE), "International Student Enrollment Trends, 1948/49-2016/17," Open Doors: Report on International Educational Exchange (Washington, DC: IIE, 2017), available online.

Despite the strong historical growth in total enrollment, the number of international students newly enrolling at a U.S. institution dropped for the first time in recent years in fall 2016 (see Figure 2). Furthermore, a national survey of staff at more than 500 U.S. higher education institutions showed a 7 percent decline in new international student enrollment in fall 2017, with public institutions, schools awarding master’s and associate’s degrees, less-selective schools, and institutions in the Midwest reporting a steeper drop. Survey participants attributed the fall 2017 decline to a combination of factors including visa delays and denials, the costs of U.S. higher education, the shifting social and political climate, competition from institutions in other countries, and prospective students’ concerns about securing a job in the United States after graduation.

Figure 2. Annual Percent Change in New International Student Enrollment, Fall 2007–2017*

* Annual percentage change data for 2007 to 2016 are from total enrollment numbers in IIE’s Open Doors report; percentage change for 2017 is based on an IIE survey of 522 U.S. higher education institutions, and is therefore preliminary.
Sources: IIE, Open Doors; Julie Baer, Fall 2017 International Student Enrollment Hot Topic Survey (Washington, DC: IIE, 2017), available online.

Geographic Distribution and Leading Institutions

In SY 2016–17, one in three international students studied in California, New York, or Texas (see Table 1). Other major host states include Massachusetts, Illinois, and Pennsylvania. International students are more evenly spread out across the country than the overall U.S. foreign-born population. For instance, California is home to about 15 percent of international students, but accounts for 24 percent of the total immigrant population.

Table 1. Top Ten States by International Student Population, SY 2016–17

Source: Student data are from IIE’s Open Doors: Report on International Educational Exchange; state-level estimates of the total immigrant population are from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2016 American Community Survey.

Some locations have significantly larger shares of international student enrollment, as compared to the 5 percent foreign-born share of higher education enrollment at the national level. International students comprised a larger share of total higher education enrollment in the District of Columbia (13 percent), Massachusetts (12 percent), Delaware and New York (9 percent each), and Washington State (8 percent).

New York University has been the leading host university for international students since SY 2013–14. Nationally, eight institutions enrolled more than 10,000 international students each in SY 2016–17 (see Table 2).

Table 2. Top Ten Institutions by Number of Enrolled International Students, SY 2016–17

Source: IIE, Open Doors.

Countries of Origin

In SY 2016–17, China was the top origin country for international students, representing 33 percent of the total, followed by India (17 percent), South Korea and Saudi Arabia (5 percent each), and Canada (3 percent). In SY 2016–17, 35,000 more students (new and returning) attended U.S. colleges and universities compared to the previous year, an increase mainly driven by higher numbers of students from China and India. India’s growth outpaced that of China, increasing 12 percent (from 165,900 in SY 2015–16 to 186,300 in SY 2016–17), compared to China’s 7 percent (from 328,500 to 350,800). In the meantime, the number of students from Brazil and Saudi Arabia decreased 32 percent and 14 percent respectively, in part due to the suspension of government scholarship programs in Brazil and the restructuring of similar programs in Saudi Arabia. 

The origin-country composition of international students in the United States has changed significantly over time (see Table 3). In SY 1949–50, Canada, Taiwan, India, and several European and Latin American countries were the major sending countries. Following the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965, which removed national-origin quotas, students from Asian countries began to predominate in international student enrollment.

Table 3. Top Ten Origin Countries of International Students, SY 1949–50, 1979–80, and 2016–17

Source: IIE, Open Doors.

Fields of Study

Engineering, business management, and math and computer science were the top three fields of study for international students in SY 2016–17, accounting for more than half of all international enrollment at U.S. higher education institutions. Notably, 48 percent of international students were in STEM fields and were eligible for the extended 36-month OPT upon graduation. Between SY 2015–16 and 2016–17, three fields of study experienced higher growth rates than the 3 percent for overall international enrollment: math and computer science (18 percent), engineering (6 percent), and communications and journalism (4 percent). Meanwhile, the number of students in intensive English, education, and humanities decreased. The significant drop in intensive English is mainly related to the decrease in enrollment of students from Saudi Arabia, China, and Brazil.

Figure 3. Fields of Study of International Students, SY 2016–17

* Denotes a science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) field.
Source: IIE, Open Doors.

Students from different origin countries tend to pursue different majors. For instance, a majority of students from India (80 percent), Iran (79 percent), Nepal (65 percent), and Kuwait (64 percent) in SY 2016–17 were in STEM fields, versus just 16 percent of those from Japan and 20 percent each of those from the United Kingdom and Germany.

Academic Levels

From SY 1979–80 to 2016–17, international enrollment has steadily risen for all academic levels except for non-degree students. As of SY 2016–17, undergraduate international students outnumbered graduate students, following nearly a decade of lower enrollment (see Figure 4).

Figure 4. Academic Level of International Students, SY 1979–80 to SY 2016–17

Source: IIE, Open Doors.

The 1.1 million foreign students in the U.S. higher education system in SY 2016–17 include nearly 175,000 students who participated in OPT following completion of their studies. The share of students in OPT grew rapidly in the last decade from 6 percent of total international students in SY 2004–05 to 12 percent in SY 2014–15 and 16 percent the following year.

Economic Impact

In SY 2016–17, about two-thirds of all international students received most of their educational funding from sources outside the United States: 60 percent relied on personal and family funding, and another 6 percent primarily used foreign government or university aid. The remaining 34 percent financed their education primarily through current employment, U.S. university or government aid, or other sources.

International students contributed nearly $37 billion to the U.S. economy and created or supported more than 450,000 jobs, according to NAFSA estimates.

A more detailed analysis by state and congressional district level is available on the NAFSA website.

Transition into U.S. Labor Market and Local Economies

While the benefits international students provide their colleges and universities are well understood, research tracking the transition of international students into the U.S. labor market and measuring their economic benefits to the United States by participating in the labor force is relatively scarce due to the limitation of longitudinal data.

Existing literature suggests international students have transitioned into U.S. jobs at low rates in recent years, pointing to limited availability of work visas as the main barrier. A 2014 Brookings Institution report found that 45 percent of foreign student graduates were able to extend their visas to work in the same metropolitan area as their college or university. However, a 2016 analysis by economist Giovanni Peri estimated that for every 100 F-1 students educated in a state, none were working in the state five years after graduating.


Baer, Julie. 2017. Fall 2017 International Student Enrollment Hot Topics Survey. Washington, DC: Institute of International Education (IIE). Available online.

Institute of International Education (IIE). 2017. A Quick Look at Global Mobility Trends. Washington, DC: IIE. Available online.

---. 2017. Open Doors: Report on International Educational Exchange. Washington, DC: IIE. Available online.

Peri, Giovanni, Gaetano Basso, and Sara McElmurry. 2016. Opportunity Lost: The Economic Benefit of Retaining Foreign-Born Students in Local Economies. Chicago: The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Available online.

Ruiz, Neil G. 2014. The Geography of Foreign Students in U.S. Higher Education: Origins and Destinations. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution. Available online.

U.S. Department of State. 2018. Report of the Visa Office 2017. Accessed May 7, 2018. Available online.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). 2018. SEVIS by the Numbers: Biannual Report on International Student Trends. Washington, DC: ICE. Available online.