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Report: International Student Enrollments Decline, Graduate Enrollments Increase, Undergraduates Drop


The number of international students enrolled in U.S. higher education institutions decreased by 2.4 percent in 2003/04 to a total of 572,509, according to Open Doors 2004, the annual report on international academic mobility published by the Institute of International Education (IIE) with support from the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. The 2.4% drop follows minimal increase the prior year (0.6 percent in 2002/03), preceded by five years of steady growth. The drop in enrollments in 2003/04 is the first absolute decline in foreign enrollments since 1971/72 (when enrollments dropped 3 percent to 140,126), although several years of minimal (less than 1 percent) growth were reported in the mid-1980s and mid-1990s. An increase of 2.5 percent in the total number of international students enrolled at the graduate level partially offset a 5 percent decline in the number of international undergraduate students in 2003/04. These international student enrollment changes were experienced differently by different types of institutions and in different levels and fields of study.  

University of Southern California, with 6,647 international students in 2003/04, was the U.S. university with the largest number of international students for the third year in a row, enrolling 6 percent more international students than the previous year (with increases at both the undergraduate and graduate level). Columbia University (up 4 percent) moved up two places to #2, followed by Purdue University (up 2 percent), New York University (down 7 percent) and University of Texas at Austin (down 2 percent). While thirteen of the 25 leading U.S. host campuses in 2003/04 had an increase in the number of international students enrolled, the top 25 host campuses experienced a total net decline of 1 percent compared to the same universities in the prior year. (See for the list of the top 25 host institutions.)  

Open Doors 2004 reports that undergraduate enrollments decreased by almost 5 percent, with undergraduate enrollments decreasing from each of the top 5 sending countries (China –20 percent, India –9 percent, Japan –14 percent, Korea –1 percent, and Canada –3 percent). Associate degree institutions reported the steepest declines in undergraduate enrollments, with a decrease of 10 percent, followed by institutions in the following Carnegie classifications: Masters (undergraduate enrollments down 9 percent), Research/Doctoral (down 5 percent) and Baccalaureate (down 1 percent). Fourteen of the 25 institutions hosting the largest numbers of international students reported a decline in the number of international undergraduate students. Since most international students come to the United States to pursue full degrees over several years, the 2003/04 reported decrease in undergraduate enrollments could lead to several years of lower enrollments unless the number of newly admitted undergraduates rises in the coming years.  

The undergraduate declines were partially offset by an increase in the total number of graduate enrollments, which increased by 2.4 percent in 2003/04, with wide diversity among graduate fields and institutions. The national average for graduate enrollments at larger research/doctoral institutions (which host almost 70 percent of all foreign graduate students in the U.S.) showed minimal change over the prior year, with an average decrease of only 0.4 percent. However, the 25 universities hosting the largest number of international students did not fare as well as the national average. Among the top 25 hosts, there was an average decrease of 3 percent international graduate students, with 15 of the institutions reporting declines, and a few individual research universities reporting declines as steep as 23 percent. Graduate student enrollments at the smaller research/doctoral institutions held steady (0.1 percent increase), and the master’s institutions saw increases of 12 percent in their graduate student numbers. These increases, along with additional increases in the numbers of graduate students at “other” graduate institutions (such as medical, fine arts, and law) — which had a combined increase of 8 percent — account for the overall increase in the international graduate student enrollments. By field of study across all types of institutions, there were increases in the numbers of graduate students in the fields of business and management (8.0 percent), physical and life sciences (3.3 percent), social sciences (2.2 percent), fine and applied arts (6.0 percent), education (7.0 percent) and agriculture (2.5 percent).  

Further details on the surveys and their findings can be accessed on 

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