The Unexpected Contributors to Growth in International Student Enrollment in the US

Number of international students enrolled in US higher education increased by nearly 175,000 in a decade, according to the IIE Open Doors 2011. This is a robust growth which weathered the impact of 9/11 and then recession of 2008. However, looking closely one notices that this growth is contributed by two unexpected segments–Optional Practical Training (OPT) and “Non-degree” students. In fact, 46% (80,323/175,410) of all growth in this decade was contributed by OPT and Non-degree students.

The proportion of OPT students in total enrollment figures increased from 3.8% to 10.5% in a decade. One of the reasons for this increase is attributed to extension of OPT duration from 12 months to 27 months for STEM students. Given that at least 35% of all international students are enrolled in STEM fields which qualify for extended OPT, many students are opting for this opportunity. This becomes even more pronounced in the case of Indians. In fact, two out of three Indian students are enrolled in STEM fields. This also explains enrollment pattern for Indian students which increased by 25.5% at OPT level, however, it declined for all other levels.

Similar to OPT phenomenon, “Non-degree” students which included Intensive Language Programs increased from 6.2% to 8.2% of total international student enrollment in US higher education. Here the enrollment at Intensive Language programs increased by 24% in Fall 2010/11 as compared to last year. This growth was largely driven by Saudi students. Nearly 29% of all Saudi students are enrolled in Intensive English Language programs  . The “Non-degree” enrollment for Saudi students more than doubled from 3,247 to 6,772.

Dr. Rahul Choudaha