Understanding the Changing Face of International Students in U.S. Campuses


Take a stroll through a major college campus in recent years and you’d probably be amazed by how diverse the enrollment has become. But it in a sociopolitical climate that’s constantly changing, it’s important to stay on top of recent trends and understand the driving factors behind diversity, as well as the friction that often results from change.

Internationalizing U.S. College Enrollment

In 1854, Yung Wing completed his education at Yale and became the first Chinese graduate from an American university. He later went on to create and develop the first educational exchange program between the U.S. and China. More than 160 years later, the presence of international students on U.S. college campuses is a common sight.

According to research published by The Wall Street Journal, the international student population has increased rather dramatically over the years. In 1975, there were an estimated 154,580 foreign students (representing 1.5 percent of the total undergraduate and graduate enrollment in the country). By 2015, that number had risen to 974,926 students (or roughly 4.8 percent of the student population).

Thanks to the inroads built by Wing and other important figures, China is by far the biggest source of international students. Roughly one in three international students come from China. Other countries with significant U.S. enrollments include India, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Canada, and Brazil.

Since international students often pay full tuition and spend heavily on things like housing and consumer products, The Wall Street Journal estimates a contribution of more than $30 billion to the U.S. economy each year.

For the 2016-2017 school year, U.S. News & World Report claims the schools with the highest percent of international students include: Soka University of America (42.7 percent), Florida Institute of Technology (32.9 percent), The New School (32.3 percent), Mount Holyoke College (26.9 percent), and St. John’s College (25.5 percent).

How International Students Select Universities

Admission into top colleges and universities is challenging for foreign students. There are numerous factors involved; things get even more complicated when you take things like financial aid and scholarships into account.

One of the keys to admission is the Test of English as a Foreign Language, or TOEFL, which is used to evaluate non-native English speakers. The maximum score on the TOEFL exam is 120, with the average minimum for admission, according to U.S. News & World Report, being 78.1 for national universities and 82.5 for liberal arts colleges.

In addition to the TOEFL exam, most American universities also require SAT/ACT scores to measure math, verbal, and reasoning skills. Personal essays are also key, as they help admissions officers see each applicant in an individual light. Then there are financial aid and scholarship forms, which help international students understand the affordability of the education. 

Reports Show Dwindling Rates of International Students

While international students face some pretty challenging and rigorous admissions standards themselves, there’s been some backlash in certain parts of the country where students and their parents feel like they’re missing out on opportunities at the expense of foreign students.

For example, The Wall Street Journal points out that, in places like California, acceptance rates for in-state students has dropped. This has led many to worry about the influx of international students. People wonder I qualified American youth are being deprived of slots in top schools (many of which are state-funded schools).

While this is certainly a debate worthy of discussion, it may be an overinflated concern. Especially when you consider more recent reports that suggest we’re experiencing a momentary decline in international students on U.S. college campuses.

International enrollment at U.S. schools has seen consistent growth over the decades (except for a short period after the 9/11 attacks), but the most recent Open Doors report, which tracks yearly trends in international enrollment of U.S. colleges and universities, shows a reversal. New foreign enrollment fell by nearly 10,000 students in Fall 2016. This 3 percent decline was the first drop in six years.

Many are blaming the drop on a political environment that outsider may see as hostile to foreigners, while others say we need to see another year of data to know whether or not this is a fluke or a concern. 

Where Do We Go From Here?

When studying the issue of international student enrollment in U.S. college campuses, it’s easy to see what you want to see. Some see large enrollment as a good thing for the country’s economy and diversity, while others view it as taking away opportunities from American students. But regardless of your stance, it’ll certainly be interesting to continue tracking these trends in the years to come.

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