The Geography of Foreign Students in U.S. Higher Education: Origins and Destinations

Below is an excerpt from a 10 September 2014 ICEF Monitor article about an excellent Brookings Institution study of international student flows to the U.S. with detailed information and useful analyses.  Start with the article and, when you have time, print off and read the entire report.  I’ll be back soon with an analysis of Vietnamese students, including sending and destination cities and popular fields of study.


A new study by the Brookings Institute, The geography of foreign students in US higher education, goes beyond collecting data on international students in America to offer fascinating insights on:

  • The metropolitan centres international students are choosing to study in – and often, to stay in to work after graduation;
  • The international cities sending the most students to the US.

In this article we’ll explore some of the most important findings from this interesting new take on US student data.

Steady growth in international student numbers

quick note on the methodology of the report: the primary data source was US Immigration and Customs Enforcement I-20 forms from 2001–2012, in particular the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS – PDF) data submitted by US schools with foreign students enrolled under F-1 visas. The Brookings Institute then filtered the sample to include only:

  • F-1 international students in bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral programmes;
  • F-1 international students in metropolitan and global cities with “at least 1,500 F-1 visa approvals over the 2008 to 2012 period”, which yielded “a final list of 118 US high F-1 visa metropolitan areas and 94 global high F-1 source cities and hometowns.”

Given these restrictions, the Brookings report counts 524,000 international students in the US in 2012, versus SEVIS’s 2012 total of 858,180 F-1 and M-1 students in the US for that year. (SEVIS is now reporting 966,333 F-1 and M-1 students studying in the US as of July 2014.)

The main point for the purposes of this article is that the Brookings report and the overall SEVIS data show notable growth in international student numbers in the US. According to the Brookings methodology:

“The number of foreign students on F-1 visas in US colleges and universities grew dramatically from 110,000 in 2001 to 524,000 in 2012.”

The report notes that the biggest increases come from sending countries considered “emerging markets,” such as China and Saudi Arabia.

Why the focus on metropolitan centres and sending cities is interesting

s much as has been written about the cultural and economic benefits of international students for host universities and local communities, there is much room for discussion on the wider implications of hosting international students. In short, international students can provide long-term links to the key global regions from which they originate, whether these links are research-oriented, diplomatic, or economic.

The Brookings Institute notes the following areas of potential impact:

  • International students can be “valuable assets to local business communities that are seeking to expand globally.” They cite the IT sector, where “immigrant entrepreneur networks play a critical role in technology industries’ international expansion, linking Silicon Valley to new technology hubs in Bangalore (India), Hsinchu Science Park (Taiwan), and Shanghai (China).
  • “Migrants can increase the availability of valuable market information for exporters from origin-and destination-countries, find buyers, learn about regulatory requirements and overcome market imperfections.”
  • International students, if successfully attracted and retained post-graduation, can allow the US to “tap powerful diaspora networks around the globe.”

Those American cities with significant numbers of international students are the best placed to enjoy such benefits – particularly when the cities also contain exciting work opportunities for foreign graduates. A key consideration here is the limited extent (currently) to which US immigration laws allow talented international students to remain in the country to work post-graduation.

Where Students Go

The Brookings Institute found that from 2008 to 2012, “85% of foreign students pursuing a bachelor’s degree or above attended colleges and universities in 118 metro areas that collectively accounted for 73% of US higher education students.”

Some metropolitan areas command very significant proportions of that 85%:

“The New York metropolitan area had by far the highest number of F-1 visa approvals: more than 100,000 over the 2008-2012 period, accounting for more than 8% of national F-1 approvals. Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, and Washington made up the remaining top five metro areas, each with between 35,000 and 70,000 F-1 visa approvals. The 10 metro areas with the most F-1 visa approvals together accounted for 36% of all approvals; these metro areas also represent some of the largest by population.”


Map: 118 U.S. Metro Areas with at Least 1,500 Foreign Students, 2008–2012
Map: 118 U.S. Metro Areas with at Least 1,500 Foreign Students, 2008–2012

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