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Recruiting Intelligence

Latest Data Trends: International Student Enrollment Success Breeds More Success

In this Intead Insight, we take a deeper look at the long term trends in international student enrollment. Universities need a long-term commitment to build internationalization programs. Successful international enrollment requires dedicated staff resources and expertise as well as campus-wide support. 

We are using the open door data, collected annually by the Institute of International Education (IIE). This year to year view of international student enrollment trends is extremely helpful. The most recent report showed a 7.2% overall increase in the total number of international students studying in the U.S. which represents 3.9% of all college level enrollment in the U.S.

We noticed a number of interesting things by looking at the long-term data trends from 2001 to 2013. We took a look at which institutions drew the most international students and how those schools fared over the past decade. Specifically, we evaluated the Top 25 schools by number of international students enrolled.

During the past decade international student enrollment has grown from 547,867 students in 2001 to 819,644 in 2012, a 50% increase. Interestingly, the 25 institutions with the largest number of international student have gained market share during the past 10 years. In 2012/13, the top 25 schools accounted for 21% of the total international student population - growing from 17% in 2001.

This may look like a small shift but it seems striking to us as we considered the fact that international enrollment grew 50 percent during that same time period. We have a lot of evidence that more universities are actively engaged in international recruiting today than there were10 years ago. With greater competition, most of the 25 schools winning the recruitment game 10 years ago are winning it by even more today.


  • 17% of 548,000 in 2001 = 93,000 international students attending the top 25 schools
  • 21% of 820,000 in 2012 = 172,000 international students attending the top 25 schools

We had expected that the new international students entering the U.S. would have spread more evenly to the 4,000+ U.S. institutions since an increasing number of those insitutions have entered the international recruiting game. That said, many of them have actively engaged in recruiting international students in just the past 2 to 3 years, so their global brands are still struggling to stand out and draw international students.

Next we looked at the composition of these Top 25 institutions. Out of the 25 institutions included in 2012, one third are new to the Top 25 category as compared to this category in 2001.

The newcomers are:

  • University of California - Los Angeles (ranked 6)
  • Northeastern University (ranked 7)
  • Michigan State (ranked 9)
  • Arizona State (ranked 11)
  • University of Washington (ranked 14)
  • SUNY Buffalo (ranked 18)
  • University of Berkley (ranked 20)
  • University of Texas – Dallas (ranked 23)

It’s interesting to note that the newcomers include only one non-profit, private university: Northeastern. Clearly, scale of a public university is a critical component to be in the Top 25 and, as we know, public universities have paid more attention to international enrollment for revenue and diversity reasons during the past decade.

Also interesting to note: the minimum number of international students needed to be part of the Top 25 is now more than 5,000 vs. 3,000 in 2001 (a 66 % increase).

The data show another truism: international student enrollment requires a consistent effort. While student enrollment grew by 22 % during the past five years, on the institutional level, the picture is much more mixed.

One third of institutions showed a decline in international enrollment during that period, while 2/3 increased. The increases are grouped as follows:

  • 23% increased enrollment up to 25% during this 5 –year period
  • 19% increased enrollment up to 50%
  • 25% percent increased enrollment by 50% or more

The Bottom Line: Building and scaling international enrollment requires a long-term committment*. A diverse international enrollment program requires consistent attention and nurturing of your enrollment marketing, academic relationships, alumni connections and international career service capabilities. You know the factors driving today's admissions environment:

  • Increased international competition for qualifed paying students
  • Greater transparency of your track record (or lack thereof) via social media and word of mouth
  • Increased use of knowledgeable advisors and consultants by your prospective students and their parents 
  • Increasingly sophisticated marketing, in-country support and presence by leading institutions.

Don't let your institution fall into the 33% of those with declining international enrollment in the next five years, unless you actively choose the strategic option of focusing on the domestic market.

* A caveat: There are times when an institution can take advantage of short-term opportunites or selected government programs such as the relatively recent Saudi Arabian and Brazilian scholarship programs.


Source: IIE open door data 2001-2013

Note: We want to be mindful that percentage statistics can be misleading since a small base of students allows for much faster growth. We are in the process of completing a more detailed analysis of the absolute international enrollment numbers for universities in California, Ohio, New York and Massachusetts. We will publish the information on our Intead Blog Recruiting Intelligence during the coming weeks.