Growth in International Undergraduate Students

In 2010, the international student population reached nearly 3.6 million worldwide, according to UNESCO data released in 2012, soaring by almost 50 percent over the past six years (2.5 million in 2004). Competition for international students is becoming more intense and complex, as reflected by the diminishing global market share of the four key players—the U.S., the United Kingdom (UK), Australia, and Canada1. Although overall growth of globally mobile students is expected to continue, its composition in terms of where they come from, where they are going, and their level of study is rapidly changing.

One overarching mobility trend of the new millennium has been the rise of international students at the undergraduate level. Driven by increasing affluence in source countries like China and Vietnam, and by government-initiated scholarship programs as in Saudi Arabia and Brazil, more fully funded students are heading abroad. It is reported that in 2012, over 95 percent of Chinese students studying overseas were self-funded. Similarly, as of January 2012, two-thirds of all Saudi students pursuing higher education abroad were funded by their government.

This trend in undergraduate mobility couldn’t be any timelier for public institutions seeking alternative revenue streams to compensate for state budget cuts. In fact, for the first time in U.S. history, the number of international students at the four-year bachelor’s level reached a quarter of a million, and together with enrollments at the associate two-year level they surpassed the total number of international graduate students.

And not only are more undergraduate students arriving in the U.S. from overseas, but we have also observed a growing trend among HEIs to specifically recruit these better-funded international students to their undergraduate programs. As noted above, this phenomenon is being fueled by the growth of the middle class in a number of emerging nations, the new financial needs of public universities and colleges, in addition to the broader internationalization goals of institutions that want to be relevant in this new era of globalization. For the sake of simplicity, we use the terms “undergraduate” and “bachelor’s” students interchangeably in the report, excluding those enrolled in two-year programs.

Comparative trends in undergraduate enrollment

International student enrollment growth is driven by students at the undergraduate level; put another way, students are increasingly studying abroad at a younger age. As Figure 1 shows, all four of the host countries that we look at have significantly increased their intake of international undergraduate students between 2004 and 2012. Not surprisingly because of their aggressive recruitment practices, the UK and Australia have seen the strongest growth, with increases of international undergraduate students in excess of 60 percent during this period. The U.S. and Canada by comparison have seen international undergraduate growth between 40 and 50 percent over the same timeframe. Australia has the largest concentration of international undergraduates with three out of five international students enrolled at the undergraduate level in 2012.

When compared to graduate enrollments, undergraduate enrollments in the U.S. have clearly been the engine of growth, with enrollments jumping 37 percent between 2004 and 2012 as compared to 10 percent at the graduate level during the same period. In 2012, nearly a quarter million international students studied in undergraduate programs at U.S. HEIs. The most recent data from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency suggests a continuation of this growth story, with Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) numbers showing a 12 percent jump in registered international students in undergraduate programs from September 2011 to September 2012, again outpacing growth at other education levels.

Although the U.S. falls behind the three other big English-language destinations in percentage growth, it has the greatest potential to attract more international students at the undergraduate level. Whereas 13 percent and 24 percent of the total undergraduate population was international in the UK and Australia respectively in 2012, in the U.S. the proportion of international students was just two percent of the overall student body in 2012 (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Comparative Trends in International Undergraduate Enrollment, 2004 vs. 2012


Reading instructions: In 2012, 244,800 international students studied in undergraduate programs in the U.S., which accounted for 40 percent of all international students and two percent of total national (domestic and international) enrollment in undergraduate programs. Sheer numbers are rounded off to the nearest hundred. *Canada figures of 2012 refer to the 2010-11 academic year. Source: Institute of International Education (IIE); Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA); Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR); Statistics Canada (SC).

We summarize this trend in the U.S. context from the following perspectives: source country, field of study, and Intensive English Program (IEP). For a more detailed account of these trends, please refer to the full research report.

Source countries vary in potential for undergraduate recruitment

A look into the levels of study reveals that students from some countries have a higher propensity than others to study at the undergraduate level versus the graduate level. For example, more than 70 percent of students from Malaysia, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia are enrolled in associate’s and bachelor’s programs. By contrast, Iran and Taiwan are primarily graduate-student-focused markets.

Business fields draw more attention

Business-related programs are the most popular single field of study among international students. With no signs of slowing down, the proportion of students in business fields has grown significantly in recent years, and each of the top four source countries—China, India, Korea, and Saudi Arabia—send significant numbers of business students to the U.S. Among Chinese and Korean students, business is the single-most popular field, while among Indian and Saudi students it ranks third behind engineering and math, and engineering and English respectively.

This growth in the popularity of business programs has paralleled, to a degree, the overall demand for undergraduate programs at U.S. institutions. As a result, international undergraduate students in business studies grew by approximately 60 percent in the U.S. between 2003 and 2011, with nearly three out of ten international undergraduates enrolled in business fields—a proportion that is now comparable to the UK and Canada.

Intensive English Programs become a recruitment pathway

Although many of today’s younger international students have strong academic qualifications, many are also insufficiently prepared to enroll directly in an English-taught degree program. As a result, the Intensive English Program (IEP) sector has been growing at the fastest rate among all other fields of study in recent years. A total of 38,900 international students in the U.S. were enrolled in this type of program in 2011/12, which is more than 2.5 times as many as in 2003/04 (15,000). The top four senders of IEP students in 2011/12 were Saudi Arabia (12,300), China (5,400), South Korea (3,100), and Japan (2,400).

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