Number of international students in U.S. colleges at an all-time high, and California is their top destination

USC is hitting its $6-billion fundraising goal ahead of schedule and will continue its campaign for five more years.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

It may come as no shock to those who live here, but more international students choose to study in California than in any other state.

A record high of more than 1 million foreign students came to America for higher education last school year. Four of the top 20 institutions that welcomed them were in the Golden State, according to a new report this month.


USC hosted 13,340 international students, followed by UCLA with 11,513 students. Three other University of California campuses — San Diego, Berkeley and Irvine — also topped the list of California schools. The number of foreign students in California was 10.5% higher than the previous academic year. USC had the second largest number of international students in the country.

“California has such a huge higher education network,” said Peggy Blumenthal, a senior counselor at the Institute of International Education, which works with the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs to produce the annual Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange. “There are not only very strong public universities, but also private universities. USC, as long as I can remember, has always been either the number one or number two host campus in the country.”

New York City is also a popular study destination, with New York University topping all schools with 15,543 foreign students, and Columbia University hosting 12,740.

The Institute of International Education — a nonprofit organization that works to promote international education and education access worldwide — has collected data from colleges and universities since 1919.

New York was the leading hub for international students until 1957, Blumenthal said, at which point California surpassed it.


According to the report, this marks the 10th straight year of growth in the number of international students pursuing U.S. college degrees. In the last decade, the number of such students enrolled in America has gone up 85%.

More than a third major in engineering, math or computer science, so their contribution to American research is significant. They contributed more than $35 billion to the economy last year, including more than $5 billion in California, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Study abroad also helps strengthen global relations, Blumenthal said.

“The more that other countries understand our country, the more experience they have in the United States, the better we will be able to work with them diplomatically, economically and strategically,” she said. “Even if they don’t come away loving every aspect of America, they at least understand us better.”

Study any country’s historical patterns of sending students to America, she said, and “you can see the whole story of U.S. relations with that country.”

China continues to send the most foreign students to America, followed by India and Saudi Arabia. Students from the three countries now represent a little more than half of the total number of foreign students in the U.S.


Blumenthal noted the 12,269 students from Iran, an increase of about 8% from the year before and the highest U.S. enrollment of Iranian students in three decades. From 1974 to 1983, Iran topped all foreign countries sending students to the U.S. More than 50,000 came in 1979 during the Iranian Revolution.

Brazil was the country whose student presence in the U.S. declined the most last year, by 18% — likely due to a freeze in the Brazilian government’s Scientific Mobility Program, which previously sponsored many students, researchers said.

More American students also are studying abroad for academic credit, according to the study. About 10% of all U.S. undergraduates, or 275,000 students, have studied abroad by the time they graduate.

That number has been slowly increasing, Blumenthal said, but it still is far too low.

“Careers in the 21st century are going to be international careers,” she said. “It’s very important for Americans to learn how to function in a society and in a culture other than their own…. It’s not very good if the first time you’re abroad is when you’re trying to negotiate a billion-dollar contract.”

Opportunities to study abroad, Blumenthal said, also have to be made more broadly accessible.

About 27% of the students who studied abroad identified as racial or ethnic minorities — up from 17% a decade ago. Still, that means more than 70% of American students taking classes abroad are white.


More work can be done to increase access to study abroad for students who are low-income or the first in their families to attend college, she said. “It’s not that they don’t want to study abroad, it’s that either they don’t have the money, they don’t have the information, they’re not encouraged to do so by their parents or their professors, or possibly all those factors,” Blumenthal said.

Europe continues to host more than half of all the U.S. students who study abroad. Britain, Italy, Spain and France remain the most popular countries for American students, with China — despite a 7% decline — still holding onto fifth place.

Students last year were increasingly drawn to Cuba, which has become more accessible since President Obama began normalizing relations with the country, and to Greece, which is slowly recovering from years of economic crisis. Worries about Ebola likely were to blame for a 20% drop in American students traveling to sub-Saharan Africa.

It’ll be interesting to see whether Donald Trump’s future policies as president will affect the number of foreign students interested in enrolling in U.S. schools, and vice versa.

“It’s too soon to tell,” said Blumenthal, who has worked at the Institute of International Education for more than 30 years. “But what we have seen over the whole history of Open Doors data collection is that the numbers basically continue to rise despite political shifts, despite economic problems, despite natural disasters.”

Only once has the total number of international students in the U.S. gone down, she said — after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when screening tightened up for those entering the country on student visas.


“Yes, there’s a lot of concern right now, and international students are feeling very worried,” Blumenthal said. “But if history is any predictor, I would be optimistic that the total numbers are not going to shift dramatically.”

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