(December 2010) The latest statistics confirm that U.S. universities still attract throngs of foreign students, despite the struggling economy in the United States and in students' home countries. The number of foreign students reached its highest level ever in the 2009-10 academic year—690,000, as reported in the Institute for International Education's (IIE) annual survey, Open Doors.1 No other country attracts nearly as many foreign students. These results "reinforce the United States as a preferred destination for international students," said U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Ann Stock. 

International students inject an estimated $20 billion into the U.S. economy each year, mostly in tuition and living expenses. They are actively recruited by U.S. colleges and universities as a way to get diverse student bodies including the world's best and brightest students.

The number of students studying in the United States has risen for decades, with occasional dips during recessions and a slowdown following the 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, in part because of tighter visa restrictions. The most recent figures show that the enrollment has stabilized for most sending countries, but China and Saudi Arabia—with rising enrollment—are exceptions.

These trends have important demographic implications, not only because of the hundreds of thousands of students—and often their spouses and children—living here on temporary visas, but also because many stay to work for U.S. employers after graduation. A report from the National Science Foundation (NSF) found that most international students earning doctorates plan to stay in the United States to work. Among those receiving a doctorate in science and technology in 2006, three-fourths planned to stay after they graduated and one-half already had a job or a job offer. Many international students and their families become permanent residents and citizens.

China Sends the Most Students

More than one-half of the foreign students come from just five countries: China, India, South Korea, Canada, and Taiwan. India had been in the top spot since the 2001-02 academic year, but in 2009-10, Chinese students surged ahead, accounting for 20 percent of all international students. Peggy Blumenthal, IIE executive vice president and chief operating officer, noted that this recent increase reflects Chinese government policies that provide scholarships and encourage foreign study, along with the growing number of Chinese who can afford to send their children to expensive U.S. universities. Blumenthal pointed out that many families have just one child because of China's population policies, and parents and grandparents are willing to make a major investment in that child's or grandchild's future by paying for a U.S. university education.

Limited spaces and opportunities in China's higher education system are another factor encouraging Chinese families to send their children overseas. Although Chinese universities are expanding—in fact, they are now attracting many American students—there are not enough spaces for the children of its burgeoning middle class. Prospective students must do well on the gaokao, China's rigorous entrance exam, to get into the best universities. Once students are enrolled in a university and field of study, the Chinese system makes it difficult for them to switch if they change their minds.2 For many, studying for the SAT entrance exam and applying to a U.S. university is an attractive alternative.

The NSF reported that 90 percent of Chinese science and engineering students earning degrees at U.S. universities planned to stay in the United States. But IIE's Blumenthal noted anecdotal evidence that increasing numbers are returning home to lucrative job opportunities, bolstered by their U.S. experience and credentials.

Recession Dampened Flow From India

In the past decade, Indians dominated the international student pool. Most Indians come as graduate students, often with the intention of working for a U.S. employer after they graduate—and many do. More so than other top sending countries, Indians are highly concentrated in the sciences and engineering, fields highly valued by many U.S. employers. The 2009 to 2010 IIE data show that 74 percent of Indian students were in the sciences (including health professions) and engineering. In recent years, Indians have accounted for more than one-half of the visas granted to foreign-born professionals to work in U.S. science and technology firms, and a majority had U.S. degrees.3

But the deep recession in the United States, especially given continued economic growth in India, appears to have made U.S. study less attractive right now. While Indian students are still coming in large numbers—more than 100,000 annually in recent years—the rate of increase has slowed. There is speculation that, because many Indians view attending a U.S. graduate school as a step toward long-term residence in the United States, they are less likely to make the investment if they are not confident that a job will be waiting when they graduate.

While the recession has dampened enthusiasm for studying at U.S. universities, and many other countries are improving and expanding their own postsecondary options, the flow of international students to the United States continues. Many of these students were recruited by U.S. universities and sought after by U.S. employers when they graduated. They become an integral part of the U.S. workforce, especially in the sciences and engineering.

Mary Mederios Kent is senior demographic writer at the Population Reference Bureau.


  1. Institute of International Education (IIE), Open Doors 2010 (Washington, DC: IIE, 2010).
  2. Karen Ficher, "China Props Up Foreign Students' Numbers in U.S.,"The Chronicle of Higher Education, Nov. 13, 2010.
  3. National Science Foundation, Science and Engineering Indicators: 2010, accessed at www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind10/, on Oct. 21, 2010.