Open Doors 2016 Executive Summary


Catherine Morris, IIE,
Department of State,

Open Doors 2016:

  • International Students in U.S. Top One Million for the First Time
  • They Make Up Only 5 Percent of Students in U.S. Higher Education
  • More U.S. Students Study Abroad and Pursue Experiential Learning Overseas
  • Strong growth among students in STEM fields in both directions

OPEN DOORS 2016: Executive Summary

International Students in the United States

Overview: The number of international students enrolled in U.S. higher education increased by 7.1 percent to 1,043,839 students in 2015/16, with 69,000 more students than the prior year at colleges and universities across the United States. This marks the tenth consecutive year that Open Doors reported expansion in the total number of international students in U.S. higher education. There are now 85 percent more international students studying at U.S. colleges and universities than were reported a decade ago.

International students now represent just over five percent of the more than 20 million students enrolled in U.S. higher education, up from around four percent in previous years. This increase is due to both the growing numbers of international students and a small decline in the number of American students enrolled in U.S. higher education.

Places of Origin: For the second year in a row, the largest growth was in the number of students from India, primarily at the graduate level and in optional practical training (OPT). China remains the top sending country, with almost twice the number of students in the U.S. as India, but India’s rate of growth and absolute increases outpaced China’s.

There were also large increases in students from several countries where the national governments have been investing in scholarship programs to send their students abroad. There was a 2.2 percent increase in the number of students from Saudi Arabia, bringing Saudi students in the United States to over 61,000, largely funded by the Saudi government scholarship program, now approaching its 13th year. On a smaller scale, the continued expansion of the Kuwaiti government scholarship programs led to 8.2 percent more students coming from Kuwait. With 9,772 students, Kuwait is the 16th leading place of origin for the second year in a row.

Students from the top three countries of origin—China, India, and Saudi Arabia—now represent approximately 53 percent of the total enrollment of international students in the United States. The numbers from South Korea declined by 4.2 percent, causing it to fall from the third leading place of origin to fourth place. After these top four countries, no country represents more than three percent of the total international students in the United States. Despite a one percent decline, Canada remains the fifth leading place of origin.

Each of the top 25 places of origin had more than 6,000 students in the United States. There were increases in the number of students from 16 of the top 25 places of origin, including China, India, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Taiwan, Iran, United Kingdom, Nepal, Nigeria, Kuwait, France, Indonesia, Venezuela, Malaysia, Colombia, and Spain.

Students from Iran, the eleventh leading place of origin, increased by 8.2 percent to 12,269, the highest U.S. enrollment by Iranians in 29 years, but still significantly lower than the peak of more than 50,000 Iranian students in the United States in 1979/80. From 1974/75 to 1982/83, Iran was the top sender of international students to the United States.

The number of students from Japan remained relatively flat. Canada, Turkey, Hong Kong, Mexico, Germany and Thailand saw very slight decreases of less than two percent each. South Korea saw a modest decline from the previous year (down four percent). The factors driving these declines likely include a mix of global and local economic factors, and in some cases expanded higher education opportunities at home and declining populations. The largest drop was among students from Brazil who declined 18.2% to 19,370 students. This decrease can be attributed to the freeze in the Brazil government’s Scientific Mobility Program, which previously sponsored many Brazilian students’ U.S. studies.

Economic and Academic Impacts: The continued growth in international students coming to the U.S. for higher education has a significant positive economic impact. International students contributed more than $35 billion to the U.S. economy in 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce—a large increase over the previous year’s total of $31 billion. Open Doors 2016 reports that about 75 percent of all international students receive the majority of their funds from sources outside of the United States, including personal and family sources as well as assistance from their home country governments or universities. Students from around the world who study in the United States also contribute to America’s scientific and technical research and bring international perspectives into U.S. classrooms, helping prepare American students for global careers, and often lead to longer-term business relationships and economic benefits. Additional breakdowns of economic impact by state and Congressional District, calculated using Open Doors enrollment figures combined with other data, are available on the NAFSA International Student Economic Value Tool website.

Host States: The globalization of campuses across the United States continues, with nearly all of the top 25 host universities and all of the top ten states hosting more international students than in the prior year. California hosted almost 150,000 international students, followed by New York, Texas, Massachusetts and Illinois. Two of the top ten destinations saw double digit growth: California with a 10.5 percent increase, and Florida with a 10.4 percent increase. All but fourteen states and U.S. territories saw increases in international enrollments in 2015/16.

Host Campuses: For the third year in a row, New York University hosted the largest number of international students. The University of Southern California remains the second leading host for the third year. These two universities were followed by Arizona State University, Columbia University, and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Combined, the top 25 campuses hosted 22 percent of all international students in the United States. In 2005/06, there were 143 institutions that hosted 1,000 or more international students, while the new Open Doors reports 255 institutions hosting 1,000 or more international students in 2015/16.

Metropolitan Areas: New York City is once again the top metropolitan area for international students, followed by Los Angeles, Boston, and Chicago, with each of these locations—except Boston—seeing increases of 10 percent or more. Boston had a 6.6 percent increase, and the fifth leading host metropolitan area, San Francisco, had an 8.8 percent increase. All but three of the top 50 metropolitan areas had increases, with two metro areas showing increases of more than 20 percent: Tampa, FL, and Sacramento, CA.

U.S. Students Studying Abroad

Overview: Open Doors reported that 313,415 American students received academic credit last year for study abroad in 2014/15, an increase of 2.9%. Study abroad by American students has more than tripled in the past two decades; however, the rate of growth had slowed in recent years. The increase was about 52 percent in the past 10 years, from about 205,983 students in 2004/05, and only 16 percent over the past five years, from 270,604 in 2009/10.

Participation: Although the total number is at an all-time high, it is still the case that only about 10 percent of all U.S. undergraduate students (including community college students) will study abroad by the time they graduate.The fact that 90 percent of all American undergraduate students enrolled in U.S. higher education are graduating without an international experience means that there is still a long way to go. For students pursuing a Bachelor’s degree, approximately 15% studied abroad before graduating.

Destinations: Europe remains the top destination for U.S. students going abroad, with a third of all those studying abroad heading to the UK, France and Spain. Open Doors 2016 reports study abroad to Europe increased by 5 percent in 2014/15, driving study abroad growth. The United Kingdom remains the leading destination for American students, followed by Italy, Spain, France and China—which remained the fifth largest host destination despite a seven percent decrease. Ireland, the Czech Republic, Denmark and Austria had strong increases, as did Greece, which saw an 18 percent increase. U.S. students studied in increasing numbers in Latin America and the Caribbean, growing by two percent (to 50,298). Costa Rica led the region’s growth for U.S. study abroad, increasing by more than 8 percent to host 9,305 students. There were decreases in study abroad to China (down 7 percent) and India (down three percent to 4,438 students). Several leading destinations in Asia saw increases as hosts for U.S. study abroad: Japan (up 1.3 percent) and South Korea (up nine percent). There were decreases in the number of U.S. students going to Argentina (down 14 percent to 3,708 students), Brazil (down nine percent to 3,836 students) and Chile (down six percent to 3,136 students).

Fields of Study: American students majoring in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) represent 24 percent of study abroad students, slightly outnumbering study abroad students in Business and Management and the Social Sciences, which made up just over 20 percent and 17 percent of study abroad students, respectively.

New analysis: Taking a closer look at where the U.S. students who study abroad are coming from, Open Doors 2016 includes breakdowns looking at the number of study abroad students by sector (public, private not-for-profit or for-profit), and ranks the top colleges for study abroad among community colleges and special focus institutions for the second year. Recognizing the growing importance of education abroad experiences that involve work, internships, and volunteering abroad (WIVA), Open Doors also looks more closely at this topic, and includes data on this experiential learning both for credit and not for credit, from over 300 colleges able to track and report this kind of information.


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