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Industry Updates

August 4, 2023

Are International Students A Lifeline for U.S. Higher Education?

Lucy Stonehill

Co-founder and CEO at BridgeU

Birth rates dropped during the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009. Now as those 'Great Recession babies' get ready for college, U.S. schools are bracing for an “enrollment cliff.” Undergraduate populations may drop by 15% between 2025 and 2029.

While the enrollment cliff represents a demographic reality that can’t be ignored, there is a promising student pipeline that colleges shouldn’t overlook. Growing numbers of international school (K12) graduates are interested in pursuing four-year degrees stateside. That’s according to a new research report from BridgeU, a leading provider of college and career readiness services to international K-12 schools in over 140 countries.

The increase in interest in U.S. colleges isn't confined to one area of the globe:

  • The percentage of international students applying from China has rebounded since the pandemic, increasing by 6.2% from 2022 to 2023. 

  • More than half of international school students in Southeast Asia are interested in applying to a U.S. university. 

  • Interest is also rising in Central America, where the average number of applications to U.S. schools increased from 3.17 per international school student in 2019 to 8.49 in 2023. 

  • Interest is particularly strong in South Korea and Brazil, where the vast majority of international school students (86% and 79%, respectively) list the U.S. as their top higher education destination.

BridgeU’s recent report on this growing, diverse pool of prospective applicants, “Redefining Global Talent Pipelines: The Crucial Role of International School Graduates in Sustaining and Enriching U.S. Undergraduate Higher Education'' analyzes data from 250,000 applications, representing more than 32,000 applicants across 142 countries. These applicants all have strong academic foundations and robust English language skills. Our findings underscore the importance of strategic recruitment efforts for U.S. higher education institutions who seek to engage more effectively with such international school students.

Helping to replace declining populations and filling skills gaps

Interestingly, resurging interest from international students favors many of the states that are seeing some of the greatest population declines among college-aged students. East Coast schools consistently attract the highest number of BridgeU applications.

Besides serving as an enrollment pipeline to U.S. undergraduate institutions, the wave of international students may help fill gaps in the American labor market — particularly in STEM fields. In fact, international students make up 72% of all graduate students in computer and information sciences at U.S. universities and between 50% and 70% of graduate students in other STEM fields, according to National Foundation for American Policy data.

“International students make up between 50% and 70% of graduate students in STEM fields” 

Getting the most out of international interest requires a concerted effort from U.S. schools

International K-12 schools themselves are increasing in numbers, driven by demand from middle- and upper-middle-income families in emerging markets in Africa, Asia and elsewhere. Research from the Brookings Institute shows that the global middle class market is seeing a faster expansion than any other time in history, with the majority of the growth coming from emerging economies, which will meaningfully reshape the share of postsecondary enrollments from outside of the U.S. Globally, the number of international K12 schools has increased by 52% over the past 10 years, reaching a total of 13,190 as of January 2023. The market for international K-12 schools is expected to continue growing, with 5%-8% in compound annual forecast growth.

But attracting these students is no slam dunk. U.S. schools will have to put resources into targeted international recruitment efforts to really impact enrollment. In Europe, for example, the report shows that active consideration of U.S. colleges and universities by international school students rose from 22.5% in 2019 to 33.8% in 2023. However, unlike in other parts of the globe, the number of applications from Europe has only increased marginally. In other words, conversion rates matter. By engaging these students earlier on in their decision-making process, U.S. schools may be able to see real gains from this organic rise in international interest.

The looming enrollment cliff has been a long time coming, and there’s no way to avoid it completely. But U.S. schools looking for ways to maintain their student populations should take a look beyond our borders. They may like what they see.