The Open Doors report which provides data on international students in the US was recently released. As per the report, the number of international students in the US fell by over 15% in 2020-21 and reached the lowest since 2014-15. Among the Indian students, 44% were on OPT in 2020-21, the greatest ever share of OPT students.
The Open Doors Report on International Education Exchange is a definitive annual survey which provides comprehensive information and data on the international students studying in the United States of America (USA). The report also provides data on places of origin, sources of financial support, fields of study, host institutions, academic level, and rates of growth of the international student population in the USA, as well as on the economic impact of international students on the state where they study and the country in general. The data from the report is used by US Embassies, the Departments of State, Commerce, and Education, and other federal, state, and local organizations for policy decisions. Recently, the report for 2021 was released.
The number of international students in the US is lowest since 2014-15
As per the latest report for the academic year 2020-21, the number of international students in the US is the lowest since 2014-15. While each of the years between 2015-16 to 2019-20 recorded more than a million international students in the US, the number in 2020-21 fell to 9.14 lakh because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Compared to the previous academic year 2019-20 when the number of international students was 10.75 lakhs, there has been a fall of 15%. The year 2018-19 recorded the all-time highest number of international students in the US and that number has decreased for two years in a row now.
7 out of 10 international students in the US are from Asia
Students from Asia continue to account for the lion’s share of international students in the US. The share of students from Asia has increased from 66.1% in 2014-15 to 70.6% in 2020-21, the highest since 2015-16. During this period, the share of students from Europe and the Middle East & North Africa has declined. While the share of students from Europe dropped from 8.8% to 7.4%, the share of students from the Middle East and North Africa has dropped from 10.4% to 6.3%.
More than 50% of the international students in the US from India & China alone
Since 2014-15, the top 25 places of origin of international students in the US account for an average of 83% of all international students each year. All these 25 countries recorded a drop in the number of students in 2020-21 as compared to 2019-20. The percentage decline for these countries ranges from 3.3% to 32.9%.
China is the place of origin for the greatest number of international students in the US. Every year, since 2014-15, more than 3 lakh students in the US are from China. From 31%, the share of students from China has increased to 35% in 2018-19 and 2019-20, despite the 14.8% decline in the number of students in 2020-21.
India is the place of origin for the second greatest number of international students in the US. In 2018-19, more than 2 lakh students were from India which has declined since then- by 4.4% in 2019-20 and by 13.2% in 2020-21. Along with China, the students from both the countries accounted for 45% of all international students in 2014-15 which increased to 53% in 2020-21.
12 countries were the places of origin for more than 10,000 students each, including India and China. The trend in the number of students from these 12 countries is indicated in the following chart.
1 in 2 international students in the US are pursuing STEM courses
In terms of the field of the international students in the US, nearly 21% of the international students in the US were pursuing engineering-related courses in 2020-21, followed by nearly 20% who were pursuing Math & Computer Science and 16% for business and management courses. More than 50% of the international students were pursuing STEM-related courses in 2020-21.
More than three-quarters of the Indian students in the US are pursuing STEM courses
Among Indian students in the US, the greatest demand is for mathematics and computer science, followed by engineering like the trend in the previous years. More than 68% of the Indian students had opted for either of these two fields of study. More than 75% of the Indian students in the US had opted for STEM courses. Except for Engineering, Math & Computer Science, the share of Indian students pursuing other major courses is much less than the share of all international students pursuing that course. In the case of Engineering, Math & Computer Science, 68% of Indian students in the US were pursuing these courses while the share is only 40% for all international students.
The majority of the international students were pursuing graduate courses
The trend in terms of the level of the study shows that the majority of the international students- over 3.6 lakh students (39%), were pursuing undergraduate courses followed by 3.29 lakh students (36%) at the graduate or masters level courses. Over 2.03 lakh students were on OPT (optional practical training) and 21,151 were pursuing non-degree courses in 2020-21.
Most Indian students now on OPT
The student visa rules of the US allow for Optional Practical Training (OPT), which is temporary employment that is directly related to a student’s major area of study. Eligible students can apply to receive up to 12 months of OPT employment authorization before their student visa expires. Students who earned a degree in certain science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields may apply for a 24-month extension of OPT. In other words, those students who pursue STEM courses can opt for three years of OPT or temporary employment before their student visa expires.
As more than 75% of the Indian students in the US are pursuing STEM-related courses, the share of Indian students on OPT has been increasing over the years. In 2020-21, 43.9% of Indian students were on OPT compared to 41% who were pursuing graduate courses. This is the first time that the share of Indian students on OPT is more than the share of those pursuing graduate courses. The percentage of Indian students pursuing graduate courses fell from 64% to 41% between 2014-15 and 2020-21. During the same period, the share of Indian students on OPT increased from 22.1% to nearly 44%. In 2020-21, about 14% of Indian students were pursuing undergraduate courses.
More than 25% of the international students in Arizona, Illinois, Indiana, and New Jersey were Indians
California hosted the maximum number of international students (1.32 lakh) while New York hosted the second greatest number of students (more than 1 lakh). However, in contrast to the popular trend, New York was the most preferred destination for Indian students. About 17.4% of the students in New York were Indians (over 18,600 students). California was the second most preferred state with 13.7% of the students there being Indians (more than 18,000). Texas, which was the most preferred state for Indian students between 2014-15 and 2018-19, was the third most preferred in 2020-21. Illinois and Massachusetts also hosted more than 10,000 Indian students each. However, in terms of percentage share of Indians of all international students, over 31% of the international students in Arizona, 27.4% in Illinois, and 26% in Indiana and New Jersey were Indians.
The primary source of funding for 54% of the international students was ‘Personal or Family’ funding
The primary source of funding for 54% of the international students in the US in 2020-21 was personal or family funding. 18.4% of the students were funded by US colleges or universities. Current employment was the source of funding for 22.7% of the students. Further 2.5% were funded by foreign governments or universities. Only 0.5% of students were funded by a foreign private sponsor in 2020-21. Other sources of funding including foreign private sponsor, US government, US private sponsor, international organizations and other sources was the source of funding for 2.4% of the students
The trend since 2015-16 indicates that the ‘personal and family funding’ as a source of funding for international students has decreased from 66.5% in 2015-16 to 54% in 2020-21. The sponsorship of foreign governments also decreased from 7.4% to 2.5% during the same period. Current employment as the source of funding increased from 6.6% in 2015-16 to 22.7% in 2020-21.
Impact of COVID-19 visible in the drop in numbers
According to OECD, the COVID-19 pandemic has severely affected higher education globally as universities closed their premises and countries imposed lockdown measures restricting cross-border movements. The continuity of learning and the delivery of course material, the safety and legal status in the host country, provision of emergency financial aid grants to students have all been affected due to the pandemic. Visa issues, uncertainty in re-opening or duration of the closure of institutions, employment, the value offered by a university education which includes networking and social opportunities, etc. were bothering the international students which resulted in many reconsidering their decision to study abroad in 2020-21. Countries like Canada, and the UK were lenient in their visa rules or allowed students to remain on campus. However, countries such as Australia, Canada, and the US where international student inflows provide an important source of revenue for tertiary institutions suffered losses with the fall in the number of international students.
Record approval for Indian Student Visa applicants in 2021 as per the US embassy
Despite COVID-19 challenges, Indian students want to study abroad according to a study by iSchoolConnect. UNESCO’s survey also reveals that post the pandemic outbreak, the students across India started revaluating their choices and are moving to countries like New Zealand, Germany, and Ireland instead of the popular choices like the US, UK, and Canada.
While the pandemic’s impact in 2020 resulted in a reduced number of Indian students in the USA, the forecast for 2021 looks better. The US Embassy and Consulates in India announced in August 2021 that it has approved more student visa applications in 2021 than ever before, despite the global COVID-19 pandemic. As per a press release by the US Embassy in India, more than 55,000 students and exchange visitors were boarding planes to study in the United States, and more students are being approved every day. The impact of these increased numbers may be visible in the academic year 2021-22.
Featured Image: Indian students in the USA