US higher education sees sharp growth in international student numbers

The United States has witnessed an exceptional surge in international student enrolment. The numbers have already surpassed pre-pandemic levels in the academic year 2022-2023, reaching a growth of 1,057,188 international students. The new international student enrolment also exceeded the pre-pandemic level of 268,000 in the 2019-2020 academic year and nearly reached the record high of 300,743 enrolments in the 2015-2016 academic year, as stated by Mirka Martel, the head of research, evaluation and learning of the Institute of International Education (IIE). 


According to the Open Doors® 2023 Report on International Educational Exchange, which was released by the US Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and IIE, this surge marks a remarkable 12% year-over-year growth, signifying the fastest growth in 40 years. India emerged as a prominent driver of this growth, contributing to a staggering 35% increase with 268,923 students choosing the US for higher education. 

Sector growth and economic impact 

The surge not only marks a milestone but also emphasises the US’ steadfast position as one of the top destinations for international study. As Assistant US Secretary of State Lee Satterfield stated: “Students from around the world have chosen the United States as the top destination for international study.” He also emphasised how international education fosters cross-cultural connections and equips future leaders to tackle global challenges. The economic impact of this international student surge is substantial, contributing $40.1 billion to the US economy and supporting 368,333 jobs  during the 2022-2023 academic year as reported by National Association of Foreign Student Advisers (NAFSA). 

Educational Levels and Programs  

The growth spanned across various educational levels. Graduate programs witnessed a substantial 21% increase, attracting 467,027 foreign students. The increase in undergraduate programs was modest at 1%, but still denotes the first growth in five years. Additionally, the Optional Training Program (OPT) saw a 7.5% growth, with 198,793 students engaged in post-study work placements. However, it’s important to note that these figures include students in OPT placements, constituting around 19% of the total reported international students.  

Emerging markets and expansions 

The surge isn’t confined to established markets like China and India; emerging markets in Sub-Saharan Africa have showcased significant growth. Over 50,000 students from this region enrolling in 2022-2023 ushered in an 18% increase, with notable contributions from countries like: 


  • Nigeria (+22% for a total of 14,438) 
  • Ghana (+32% for a total of 6,468)  
  • Kenya (+7% for a total of 4,059) 
  • Ethiopia (+12% for a total of 3,006)  
  • South Africa (+14% for a total of 2,713)  
  • Zimbabwe (+19% for a total of 1,789) 
  • Democratic Republic of the Congo (+31% for a total of 1,660) 
  • Rwanda (+12% for a total of 1,372), 
  • Uganda (+20% for a total of 1,088) and Cameroon (+17% for a total of 1,086).  


Martel highlighted the robust recruitment efforts in the region. 40% of institutions noted on to the focus towards graduate recruitment in Nigeria. 75% of institutions also anticipate increases in new enrolment from the country in 2023-2024.   

Accessible US institutions and continued efforts  

While also celebrating this surge, industry stakeholders have raised concerns on improving access to a wider range of US institutions for international students. This concern was articulated at The Professionals in International Education (PIE) Live North America event in Boston, where experts stressed the need for greater access and efficient visa processes and post-graduation work opportunities. 

Efforts towards a national recruitment strategy, akin to those in the UK, Canada and Australia, have been suggested to address these challenges and streamline policies. As the US seeks more initiatives and plans to further diversify international education across its 3,700 institutions, the focus remains on fostering an environment that welcomes and supports international students, ensuring opportunities are accessible across the spectrum of higher education institutions. 

The Fall 2023 Snapshot Survey, drawing responses from over 630 US higher education institutions, reveals a promising outlook.  As of Autumn of 2023, there’s  8% increase in international students taking courses or participating in the work training program in 2023-2024 compared to the previous year. The State Department’s initiatives, including showcasing international students and their impact, aim to inspire communities and institutions to actively participate in furthering global educational exchange.  


This surge not only signifies a growth in international enrolment but also highlights the continued efforts to enhance access, streamline processes and create an inclusive environment for international students seeking educational opportunities in the United States. 


To know more about the exciting opportunities available for international students at GSP’s partner institutions, please reach out to our North American team at [email protected]. 

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