What Do International High School Students Mean for U.S. Higher Education? Six Key Takeaways

As nearly 1 million international students begin a new academic year at a U.S. college or university, another group of international students is likewise preparing for enrollment at a U.S. high school. As noted in IIE’s report, Charting New Pathways to Higher Education*, in fall 2013 there were over 73,000 international students enrolled in U.S. high schools, and of those, nearly 49,000 were seeking diplomas from U.S. high schools to help prepare them for admission to an American higher education institution.

The presence of diploma-seeking international students in high schools is beginning to shift the landscape of international student recruitment for U.S. colleges and universities. Many U.S. higher education institutions are seeing more international undergraduate applicants who are already in the United States as a high school student. This past May, I presented at the annual NAFSA conference along with colleagues from the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), Boston University, and New Oasis International Education about international students in U.S. high schools and what this trend means for U.S. higher education.

Here are six key takeaways from the session:

  1. U.S. high schools are a growing source of international applicants for U.S. higher education institutions. The number of diploma-seeking students in the United States more than tripled from 2004 to 2013. While there is every indication that this growth will continue, for every one diploma-seeking student at a U.S. high school, there are still seven international undergraduates, meaning that international applicants from outside the United States will continue to make up the bulk of international applicants for some time to come. 
  2. Students perceive an admissions advantage to earning a U.S. high school diploma. International students seeking U.S. high school diplomas believe that obtaining academic, language, and cultural skills in the United States during high school will set them apart from other international students when they apply to a U.S. college or university. While this is often the case, there is wide variation among students. Some international graduates from U.S. high schools may still face language or academic challenges. Highly successful graduates may have struggled early on when transitioning to their U.S. high school and their transcripts may reflect these struggles, as well as their successes in overcoming challenges. 
  3. There is limited diversity among diploma-seeking international students in high schools. About 75 percent of international students seeking diplomas at U.S. high schools are from Asia—primarily from China, as well as South Korea. There are much smaller numbers of diploma-seeking high school students from Latin America and Europe, and hardly any from Sub-Saharan Africa or the Middle East. Their economic diversity is also limited, with most coming from families with the means to pay for their children’s education abroad. Scholarships are rarely available for international students at the secondary level. 
  4. International students in high schools have unique support needs during the higher education application process. International high school students often feel pressure from their families to excel academically and get into the highest-ranked college possible, while their high school counselors may encourage them to participate in extra-curricular activities to become well rounded students and to apply to a college that is a good fit, regardless of rankings. Additionally, even though they are in a U.S. high school and working with their teachers and high school counselors on their college applications, the student may also be working with an agent in their home country. In this sense, international students in U.S. high schools are a unique category of applicant that are in some ways similar to other U.S. students and in some ways similar to other international students. 
  5. Domestic admissions staff are encountering international students. During the course of their recruitment and outreach activities, college and university admissions staff are interacting with international students who are already in the United States and they need to be prepared accordingly. There is a need for cross-training and collaboration among admissions team members focused on international and domestic admissions. 
  6. High school counselors desire clear application policies to help their students apply to college. Admissions policies for international high school students vary widely across higher education institutions. Some institutions group these applicants with the domestic applicant pool, while others group them with the international applicant pool. Some institutions require them to take the TOEFL and others do not. The array of admissions policies can be confusing for students and their high school counselors. Clarity and communication can help overcome those applications challenges. 

*This report was produced by the Institute of International Education with the support of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.