International Students Are Returning to the US

December 1, 2022

The total number of international students enrolled at US institutions rebounded last year after falling sharply in 2020-21. According to data from the Institute of International Education, in 2021-22, almost 764,000 international students enrolled at US colleges and universities (excluding OPT students),[1] up 8% from the previous year. Even more important, new student enrollments rose sharply, up 80% from the previous year to 262,000 students, almost rebounding to levels seen shortly before the pandemic.

International student enrollment at US institutions (000s) Although international student enrollment levels are still well below their peak of 903,100 total students in 2016-17, this recent upward trend is the first good news regarding international students coming to study in the US.

Graduate Students Are Driving the Growth

Digging deeper into the data, we can see that much of last year’s enrollment growth came from new graduate students, with 146,500 new student enrollments in 2021-22, up 122% year-over-year. This was the most new-graduate student enrollment in any of the previous ten years.

New international student enrollment at US institutions

New enrollment of undergraduate students was also up significantly – 31% year-over-year – to reach 90,600 students. While this is still below the peak of 119,300 undergraduate students in 2015-16, it is certainly a step in the right direction.

Give the Students What They Want

As interest in attending US institutions appears to be rebounding among international students. How can US colleges and universities entice these students to their schools? One way is to ensure you offer the programs international students are looking for.

Gray works with our partner Studyportals to track international student pageviews by discipline, program, award level, and geography. This data helps our clients understand what types of programs international students are searching for and where those students are located.

An excerpt from our data below shows the 10 most popular programs across all award levels ranked by international student pageviews (year-to-date 2022). Business programs are the most popular, with about two times the pageviews of the next most-viewed program, Computer Science. Year-over-year growth in pageviews for both of these programs has been stable.

Data Science programs have quickly grown in popularity and rank as the third most-viewed program in 2022, with pageviews growing 39% from 2021. Business Analytics programs also saw a marked increase in interest, with 84% YoY growth in pageviews to make it the fifth most viewed program in 2022. Engineering, at number four, saw a slight decline in interest from the previous year.

International student pageviews by program

Geo-Target Marketing 

Another way schools can increase enrollment of international students is by targeting marketing and recruiting efforts in geographies most likely to yield results. Gray’s data tracks pageviews by students’ countries of origin and by program. Institutions can identify the countries where the most students are searching for US programs and better allocate resources to these high interest areas.

As shown in the chart below, students in India generated the most program pageviews in 2021, followed by Nigeria and Bangladesh. Please note that our data from StudyPortals does NOT include China, which would likely be the largest opportunity if it were tracked.

International student pageviews by country of origin

Taking this a step further, in the chart exploded to the right, we can hone in on specific regions and locales within a country (in this case, India) to see where the highest concentrations of prospective students are and allocate recruiting and admissions resources accordingly.

International students can be an important source of enrollment and revenue for US institutions; they also bring diverse talent, cultures, and perspectives to campuses. The US has long been a destination of choice for international students seeking to study abroad, but the landscape is becoming increasingly competitive. Using data to understand better what programs prospective international students are looking for and where those students are located can help colleges and universities optimize their marketing and recruiting efforts and stimulate growth.


[1] Optional Practical Training (OPT) is 12-month work authorization available to F-1 international students who have been full-time students for at least two consecutive semesters and plan to seek employment in the United States in their fields of study.

Elaine Rowles

Principal

Elaine works with Gray’s education clients on strategic planning projects, program portfolio evaluations, program feasibility studies, price benchmarking, and research-intensive custom project work. She has performed in-depth analyses of existing programs and institutions, as well as assessed demand and employment opportunities for new and emerging programs.

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Gray Associates, Inc. is a software and services firm focused on higher education. We help education clients develop fact-based institutional and marketing strategies that maximize outcomes for students, the school, and its constituencies.

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