International Education and Internationalization of Universities in the U.S.

January 9, 2024

Mehmet TosunBy Mehmet S. Tosun, Director of International Business Programs

In the first blog of this international blog series we started back in 2020, I wrote about international education in the U.S., focusing on data from the Institute of International Education (IIE) and the National Association for Foreign Student Advisors (NAFSA). I didn’t get a chance to write about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in that blog since data wasn’t available then. We now have data that shows the impact of the pandemic and the recovery in the post-pandemic period.

According to the IIE’s Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange, there were 1,057,188 international students in the U.S. in the 2022-2023 academic year, which constitutes 5.6% of the total student enrollment. While this is still below the pre-pandemic student numbers, it is a considerable increase from the previous year. After a historical high of 1,095,299 international students in the 2018-2019 academic year, there was a 1.8% decline in the 2019-2020 academic year, followed by a whopping 15% decline in the 2020-2021 academic year, which was of course due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Total International student enrollment decreased by 181,204 students from the 2018-2019 academic year to 2020-2021 academic year. One encouraging statistic is regarding the new international student enrollment. There was a sharp increase in new enrollment in 2021-2022 and 2022-2023 academic years. Actually, the new enrollment of 298,523 international students in 2022-2023, exceeded the new enrollment in the pre-pandemic year of 2018-2019. More than half of the new enrollment (about 57%) is coming from graduate student enrollment. New undergraduate and non-degree student enrollments are still below the pre-pandemic levels. The most recent report shows that math and computer science, engineering, and business and management are still the three most popular fields of study for international students.

On the study abroad front, there were 188,753 U.S. students studying abroad in the 2021-2022 academic year. While this is far below the number of students in the pre-pandemic years, it is a considerable increase from the 2020-2021 number of 14,549 students. It is important to note that the impact of the pandemic was strongest in the study abroad numbers due to lockdowns and travel restrictions. As I mentioned in my first blog about this topic, there is little diversification in the study abroad locations. Most students (73%) chose European destinations, which is understandable given the strong connection between the U.S. and European countries and institutions. But even within Europe there is limited diversification. Three countries in Europe – Italy, United Kingdom and Spain – received about 60% of students visiting Europe, which also translates into 44% of all study abroad students. Business and management fields continue to be the most popular field for study abroad. One change since the pandemic is that there are more students choosing summer than academic year for study abroad compared to pre-pandemic period. There is now almost a perfect split between summer and other academic periods. It is interesting that about 45% of students do their study abroad for a short period in eight weeks or less.   

While data from IIE provide a good overview of international students in the U.S. and Nevada, one may still wonder why we need a broader internationalization of universities? There are many benefits, of course. Internationalization brings a great deal of cultural diversity to campuses and helps with the overall diversity objective of universities. In her book Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Martha Nussbaum writes about the important role of education in bringing people together from different geographic areas, cultures and religions. She notes “The world’s schools, colleges and universities therefore have an important and urgent task: to cultivate in students the ability to see themselves as members of a heterogeneous nation (for all modern nations are heterogeneous), and a still more heterogeneous world, and to understand something of the history and character of the diverse groups that inhabit it.” (Nussbaum, 2016: 80) Internationalization helps students and others understand the issues and challenges that are international or global in nature.

Internationalization through university partnerships creates opportunities for academic collaboration between institutions. Of course, we have many academic institutions in the U.S. but, as one can imagine, you will have access to a much greater number and variety of partnerships if you open your institution to many other countries in the world. Opportunities include faculty and student exchange, research collaboration, joint initiatives such as dual degree programs, study abroad activities for students, teaching engagements, and education missions among others.

Internationalization contributes to better engagement between countries and helps with easing conflicts, at least to a degree. As part of our past international engagement, we have brought together not only academic institutions but also government agencies, businesses, and other community organizations. Communication between these groups is very important for maintaining good diplomacy between countries as well.

International students generate a sizeable economic impact in the U.S. It is not just through increased tuition revenue but also through the overall impact on the local economy coming from students who are community members. NAFSA’s International Student Economic Value Tool put the total economic contribution of international students in the 2022-2023 academic year at $40.1 billion, leading to 368,333 jobs created in the U.S.

Universities can also help with internationalization efforts of companies, which in turn benefits the university through the involvement of faculty, staff and students. Businesses, particularly ones with international orientation, often choose university innovation centers, incubators, and accelerator programs to do their soft landing in the U.S. market. Faculty and staff provide expertise to businesses and students are involved in applied research and benefit from internships. This is another good way for the universities to have international exposure.

So, how is Nevada doing regarding international students and study abroad? Not so great, I’m afraid. According to IIE’s state fact sheets, as of 2021-2022 academic year Nevada had 2,031 international students, which is considerably lower than the 2,520 students it had before the pandemic. In 2018-2019, Nevada was ranked #44 among 50 states and District of Columbia in international students. It is now ranked #45. Nevada’s international student number was already low before the pandemic, but it looks like it has gotten even worse during the pandemic. Nevada is also ranked very low in terms of U.S. students studying abroad. IIE ranked Nevada at #50 in the 2021-2022 academic year. We definitely need to work on increasing these numbers in coming years.

I’m currently visiting the Consumer Electronic Show (CES) in Las Vegas. This is my first trip representing our university as Chief International Officer. CES is considered one of the largest and most influential tech events in the world. It is attended by about 130,000 people and involves more than 4,000 exhibitors. I’m meeting with business and government delegations, universities, and associations from around the world. We are also participating the International Market Overview and Networking event organized by the U.S. Commercial Service. What a great way to network internationally and tell people about our wonderful institution.