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India is nearing China as the U.S.’s largest source of international students, as enrolment comes close to pre-pandemic levels

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After years of COVID-era disruption, international students are now ready to head back to the U.S. for study, bringing back a major moneymaker for U.S. colleges and universities.

The U.S. hosted 1,057,188 international students for the 2022-2023 academic year, an increase of 11.5%, according to a report from the Institute of International Education and the U.S. State Department released on Monday.

“The U.S. remains the destination of choice for international students wishing to study abroad, as it has been for more than a century,” Allan E. Goodman, the CEO of IIE, said in a statement.

International students are big business. They contribute $38 billion to the U.S. economy and support some 335,000 jobs according to the U.S. State Department. Non-U.S. students typically pay higher fees than their domestic counterparts, and so generate a sizable amount of revenue for public universities.

Enrolment is now nearing the levels reported before COVID. The number of international students peaked in the 2018-2019 academic year, when almost 1.1 million students went to U.S. colleges and universities. When the pandemic hit, enrolment plummeted due to border closures, health concerns, and fears about safety.

China, barely, stays at number one

In 2019, China was the largest source of international students, sending 370,000 students to the U.S., or 35% of the total. Chinese students accounted for an estimated $15 billion in revenue that year.

This year, the country is still the top source of students headed to the U.S., though numbers have fallen sharply. Just under 290,000 Chinese students were enrolled in U.S. institutions in the 2022-2023 academic year, a 0.2% drop. Chinese enrolments fell sharply during the 2020-2021 academic year and have steadily declined since.

That’s partly due to the worsening China-U.S. relationship. The Trump administration cancelled visas for some Chinese students over alleged ties to the country’s military, then made visas harder to get for those coming from military-linked institutions.

The Trump administration also started the China Initiative, which investigated academics on suspicion of spying on behalf of Beijing. Academics blamed the anti-espionage campaign—which the Biden administration ended last year—for scaring away Chinese talent while not uncovering any significant cases of spying.

A spike in racist incidents against Asians and Asian-Americans may have also dissuaded Chinese students from considering the U.S. Chinese state media have highlighted both attacks on Asian-Americans and gun crime, in part to deflect Washington’s own criticisms of Beijing.

Chinese students are now looking at universities elsewhere in Asia, like in Japan and Singapore, due to their proximity to China and a reputation for safety.

India catches up

Another group of students from Asia are making up for falling enrolment from China.

The number of Indian students surged this year, according to the IIE-State Department report. Around 269,000 students from India were enrolled in U.S. institutions during the 2022-2023 academic year, up 35%. It’s also the second consecutive year with a double-digit increase, albeit from a low base caused by the COVID pandemic.

In fact, India is already the largest source of international graduate students, sending around 166,000 to the U.S., compared to China’s 126,000.

India’s growing middle class and young population could sustain its position as a source of international students. The UN projected that India overtook China as the world’s most-populous country earlier this year. Rising incomes in the South Asian country could also push more families to send their children overseas for higher education.

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