International Students in the United States
The United States has long been the top receiving country for international students, who historically have been drawn by the high quality of U.S. higher education, its value on the international labor market, and access to job opportunities in the United States after graduation. About 1.1 million international students were enrolled in U.S. institutions in school year (SY) 2019-20. This marked a decrease of almost 20,000 international students from the year before, following a decade of consistent growth. Among the key factors for this decline were the rising cost of U.S. higher education, high numbers of student visa delays and denials, a difficult political environment for immigrants under the Trump administration, and expanded opportunities to study in other countries.
The COVID-19 pandemic has further aggravated these dynamics. Closures and limited access to U.S. embassies and consulates, travel restrictions, and personal safety considerations have complicated visa issuance and travel plans of international students. The Trump administration initially attempted to bar students from entering or remaining in the United States if their schools offered only online courses, although the order was quickly rescinded. Still, the move contributed to confusion and frustration for U.S. colleges and universities and their international students. At the start of the fall 2020 academic semester, the total number of international students enrolled in U.S. schools, including those physically present in the United States and studying online from abroad, decreased by 16 percent from the previous year. One in five of these students was studying online from another country. The number of new international students fell by 43 percent, in part because some chose to defer their studies.
Using data from the Institute of International Education (IIE) and NAFSA: Association of International Educators, this Spotlight examines characteristics of international students who were enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities in SY 2019-20, focusing on the population’s 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 those who were enrolled in educational institutions as well as graduates who remained 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.
Click on the bullet points below for more information:
- Visa Categories
- Enrollment Numbers and Trends
- Geographic Distribution and Leading Institutions
- Countries of Origin
- Fields of Study
- Academic Levels
- Funding and Economic Impact
- Transition into U.S. Labor Market
U.S. immigration law has four categories of visas for foreign students and exchange visitors:
- F-1 visa for full-time students at an academic institution such as a college, university, or high school, or who are enrolled 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 an academic (F-3) or vocational (M-3) institution.
- 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.
Students holding an F-1 visa are authorized for up to 12 months of OPT upon graduation and become eligible for another year of OPT when seeking a further postsecondary degree at a higher level. Students with a degree in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) are eligible for an OPT extension of up to 24 additional months. Once the OPT period ends, graduates must find an employer willing to sponsor them for a work visa (such as an H-1B visa) in order to continue working in the United States. 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 or visitor they are accompanying), though only J-2 holders are eligible to study or work in the United States without obtaining their own student or work visa. After they complete their academic or research programs, international students and exchange visitors may remain in the United States if they are eligible for family- and employer-sponsored green cards, the K-1 visa for fiancé(e)s of U.S. citizens, and some nonimmigrant visas.
In the wake of the discovery that one of the 9/11 hijackers had entered the United States on a student visa but never attended class, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2003 implemented a program to collect, maintain, and manage information about all foreign students and exchange visitors in the United States. The program, called the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), tracks and monitors schools, programs, students, exchange visitors, and their dependents throughout the duration of approved participation in the U.S. education system. As part of SEVIS, all schools are required to submit and regularly update student information in a central database that can be accessed by the government; students who do not appear or who stop attending classes can have their visas revoked and face deportation.
More than 1.5 million F-1 and M-1 students were enrolled in SEVIS-certified schools in calendar year 2019, down by approximately 2 percent from 2018. At the same time, the number of J-1 visiting students increased by 2 percent from 2018 to 2019, to nearly 533,000. There were more than 8,600 SEVIS-certified schools in calendar year 2019, slightly fewer than in recent years.
The following sections focus specifically on international students who were either enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities or participating in OPT. Estimates are based on an annual survey of U.S. schools conducted by IIE, which are slightly different from SEVIS estimates.
The number of international students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities has experienced strong overall growth since the 1950s (see Figure 1). Beginning with just 26,000 international students in the 1949-50 school year, the number of students neared 1.1 million in 2019-20. International students also increased as a share of all students enrolled in U.S. higher education: from 1 percent in 1949–50 to nearly 6 percent in 2019-20.
Figure 1. International Students and Share of Total Enrollment (%), School Year (SY) 1949-50 to 2019-20
Source: Institute of International Education (IIE), "Enrollment Trends: International Student Data from the 2020 Open Doors Report,” accessed January 11, 2021, available online.
Growth has slowed in the last decade, however, and the 2019-20 school year saw the first decline in years in the overall number of international students in the United States (see Figure 2). New students have comprised a falling share of all international students, down from 29 percent in SY 2009-10 to 25 percent in 2019-20. Over the same period, the share of students participating in OPT has more than doubled, from 10 percent to 21 percent.
Figure 2. International Students in the United States by Type of Enrollment and Program Participation, SY 2009-10 to 2019-20
Sources: IIE, "Enrollment Trends: International Student Data from the 2020 Open Doors Report”; IIE, “New International Student Enrollment: International Student Data from the 2020 Open Doors Report,” accessed January 11, 2021, available online.
The number of international students newly enrolling at U.S. institutions dropped in 2016-17 and has decreased each year since (see Figure 3). In the 2019-20 school year, 268,000 new international students were enrolled in U.S. institutions.
Figure 3. Annual Change in New International Student Enrollment (%), Fall 2009-19
Source: IIE, "New International Student Enrollment: International Student Data from the 2020 Open Doors Report.”
A 2018 survey of staff at more than 500 U.S. higher education institutions explored reasons for the enrollment declines. Respondents cited a variety of factors including visa difficulties, the U.S. social and political climate, competition from other countries’ institutions, and the costs of attending U.S. colleges and universities. The share of respondents pointing to the visa application process has grown the fastest, from 34 percent in 2016 to 83 percent in 2018. Notably, this survey was conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic and related travel and visa difficulties. Concerns about the social and political environment was the second fastest-growing reason, rising from 15 percent of respondents to 60 percent between 2016 and 2018.
In SY 2019-20, one in three international students studied in California, New York, or Texas (see Table 1). Other leading host states were 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 about 24 percent of the total immigrant population.
Table 1. Top Ten States by International Student Population, SY 2019–20
Sources: IIE, Open Doors: Report on International Educational Exchange, 2020 Fast Facts (Washington, DC: IIE, 2020), available online; U.S. Census Bureau, “2019 American Community Survey—Advanced Search,” accessed December 15, 2020, available online.
New York University has been the leading host university for international students since SY 2013–14. Northeastern University-Boston rose to the second spot in the 2019-20 school year, pushing the University of Southern California out of the position it had held since the 2013-14 school year. Nationally, ten institutions enrolled more than 11,000 international students each in SY 2019-20 (see Table 2).
Table 2. Top Ten Institutions by Number of Enrolled International Students, SY 2019-20
Source: IIE, “Leading Host Institutions: International Student Data from the 2020 Open Doors Report,” accessed January 11, 2021, available online.
In SY 2019-20, China was the top origin for international students, representing 35 percent of the total, followed by India (18 percent), South Korea (5 percent), and Saudi Arabia (3 percent). While the overall growth in the number of international students has stalled, there continue to be year-over-year increases in the number of Chinese studying in the United States. Together with Taiwan and Brazil, China is one of only three origin countries in the top ten from which the number of international students increased from SY 2018-19 to SY 2019-20.
India and South Korea saw respective declines of 4 percent and 5 percent in SY 2019-20, while Saudi Arabia saw the largest decrease of the top ten countries, with 17 percent fewer students than in SY 2018-19 (a reflection of that country’s reduced financial assistance for its students to study abroad). Of the top 25 countries of origin, Spain and Bangladesh saw the largest increase in the number of students, rising 10 percent and 7 percent, respectively. Despite that growth, each country still accounted for less than 1 percent of all international students in U.S. higher education.
The origin-country composition of international students 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 to U.S. institutions. Following the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which removed national-origin quotas, students from Asia have made up a larger share of international student enrollment.
Table 3. Top Ten Origin Countries of International Students, SYs 1949–50, 1979–80, and 2019–20
Source: IIE, “All Places of Origin: International Student Data from the 2020 Open Doors Report,” accessed January 11, 2021, available online.
Engineering, math and computer science, and business and management were the top three fields of study for international students in SY 2019-20, accounting for more than half of all international enrollment at U.S. higher education institutions (see Figure 4). Notably, 52 percent of international students were in STEM fields and were eligible for the extended 36-month OPT upon graduation.
Between SYs 2018-19 and 2019-20, just two fields of study experienced growth in their overall international enrollment: Fine and applied arts (2 percent) and math and computer science (1 percent). The remaining fields kept roughly the same level of international student enrollment or experienced declines. The largest drop was in education (6 percent), followed by agriculture, business and management, and engineering (about 4 percent or 5 percent each).
Figure 4. Fields of Study of International Students, SY 2019-20
Note: Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields are denoted with *.
Source: IIE, “Fields of Study: International Student Data from the 2020 Open Doors Report,” accessed January 11, 2021, available online.
Students from different origin countries tend to pursue different majors. For instance, most students from Iran (80 percent), India (78 percent), Nepal (70 percent), and Nigeria (62 percent) in SY 2019-20 were in STEM fields, versus just 18 percent of those from Japan, and 23 percent each of those from the United Kingdom and Germany.
From SYs 1979–80 to 2019-20, international enrollment has steadily risen for all academic levels except for non-degree students. In SY 2019-20, undergraduate international students outnumbered graduate students (see Figure 5).
Figure 5. Academic Level of International Students, SY 1979–80 to 2019-20
Source: IIE, “Academic Level: International Student Data from the 2020 Open Doors Report,” accessed January 11, 2021, available online.
In SY 2019-20, about 60 percent of international students received most of their educational funding from sources outside the United States: 56 percent relied on personal and family funding, and another 4 percent primarily used foreign government or foreign university aid. The remaining 40 percent financed their education primarily through current employment, U.S. university aid, or other sources.
International students contributed nearly $39 billion to the U.S. economy and created or supported 416,000 jobs, according to NAFSA estimates.
Post-graduation, availability of work visas is the main barrier to international students wishing to retain work in the United States. 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.
The number of international students remaining after their studies through the OPT program has increased, although growth has slowed in recent years. In SY 2019-20, there were slightly more than 223,500 people in the OPT program, an increase of fewer than 500 from the previous year.
Guided by its focus to reduce immigration across virtually all streams, the Trump administration made it harder for the foreign born, including international students, to enter or remain in the United States on either temporary or permanent visas. In contrast, the incoming Biden administration has promised to expand the number of highly skilled visas, reduce visa backlogs, and speed up visa and citizenship application processing. The change in rhetoric and new policy directions may help reverse enrollment declines and expand post-graduation opportunities for international students, depending on the long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
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U.S. Census Bureau. N.d. 2019 American Community Survey—Advanced Search. Accessed December 15, 2020. Available online.
U.S. Department of State. 2019. Report of the Visa Office 2019. Accessed December 11, 2020. Available online.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). 2020. SEVIS by the Numbers: Annual Report on Nonimmigrant Student Trends. Washington, DC: ICE. Available online.
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