Community colleges draw fewer foreign students

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The number of international students at U.S. community colleges continues to decline.

There were 86,351 international students at associate degree-granting institutions in 2018-19, an 8.3 percent drop from the previous year, according to the 2019 Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange, published by the Institute of International Education (IIE) and the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

However, at the same time, the total number of international students in the U.S. increased ever so slightly by 0.05 percent. That is due, in part, to international students remaining in the country to participate in “optional practical training,” which allows international student graduates to remain in the U.S. to work in their field of study for up to two-and-a-half years, according to the report.

There were nearly 1.1 million international students in U.S. colleges and universities in the 2018-19 academic year. That’s an all-time high, and the fourth consecutive year in a row with more than a million international students.

A less-comprehensive “snapshot” survey that takes a first look at international enrollments for the current academic year, carried out by IIE in cooperation with several organizations, including the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), found new enrollments of international students at community colleges declined by 0.8 percent in fall 2019 compared to 2018.

Despite the decline of international students at community colleges, they still contribute significantly to the economy. Data from NAFSA show international students studying at U.S. community colleges contribute $2.6 billion to the U.S. economy and support 13,970 jobs.

At a news briefing on the Open Doors report, Assistant Secretary of State Marie Royce said the State Department is continuing to work with AACC and community colleges on a major initiative to promote the 2+2 model abroad and support the creation of articulation agreements with community colleges.

A look at the numbers

Among U.S. community colleges, the Houston Community College System continues to draw the most international students (See graph, below).

According to data on community colleges that accompanied the Open Doors report, China continues to send the most students to community colleges. Just over 20 percent of all international students at community colleges are from China.

Rounding out the top five countries of origin are Vietnam (9.9 percent), South Korea (6.6 percent), Japan (5.5 percent) and Mexico (4.3 percent).

Open Doors identifies the following characteristics of international students at associate degree-granting colleges:

  • A slim majority, 51.2 percent, are men.
  • The vast majority, 89.4 percent, are full time.
  • 94.5 percent are single.
  • 92.4 percent have an F1 visa, which permits foreigners to study full-time at a U.S. college or university.

Study abroad

Associate-degree institutions sending the most students abroad for academic credit were Citrus College in California (193), Pellissippi State Community College in Tennessee (188), College of DuPage in Illinois (175), Orange Coast College in California (170) and Kirkwood Community College in Iowa (163).

Europe is the most popular destination for U.S. community college students. Among those who studied abroad in 2018-19, 14.3 percent went to Italy, 9.9 percent went to Spain, 9.4 percent went to the United Kingdom, 7.1 percent went to Ireland and 6.1 percent went to France. Rounding out the top 10 are Costa Rica, Japan, Mexico, China and Germany.

By far, the most popular areas of study for community college students going abroad are science, technology, engineering and math. Just over 24 percent of community college students traveled abroad for a STEM-related program.

Open Doors breaks down the STEM study aboard percentage into health professions (10.5 percent), engineering (3.1 percent), physical and life sciences (5.6 percent), math and computer science (2.8 percent) and agriculture (2.2 percent). Among other fields of study for community college students going abroad are business and management (8.8 percent), social sciences (10.9 percent), fine and applied arts (5.8 percent) and foreign language and international studies (2.4 percent).

About the Author

Ellie Ashford
is associate editor of Community College Daily.