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The Geography of Foreign Students in U.S. Higher Education: Origins and Destinations
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SUMMARY OF FINDINGS
 
This report uses a new database on foreign student visa approvals from 2001 to 2012 to analyze their distribution in the United States, finding that:
  • The number of foreign students on F-1 visas in U.S. colleges and universities grew dramatically from 110,000 in 2001 to 524,000 in 2012. The sharpest increases occurred among students from emerging economies such as China and Saudi Arabia. Foreigners studying for bachelor’s and master’s degrees and English language training accounted for most of the overall growth.
  • Foreign students are concentrated in U.S. metropolitan areas. From 2008 to 2012, 85 percent of foreign students pursuing a bachelor’s degree or above attended colleges and universities in 118 metro areas that collectively accounted for 73 percent of U.S. higher education students. They contributed approximately $21.8 billion in tuition and $12.8 billion in other spending—representing a major services export—to those metropolitan economies over the five-year period.
  • Most foreign students come from large fast-growing cities in emerging markets. Ninety-four (94) foreign cities together accounted for more than half of all students on an F-1 visa between 2008 and 2012. Seoul, Beijing, Shanghai, Hyderabad and Riyadh are the five foreign cities that sent the most higher education students to the United States during that time.
  • Foreign students disproportionately study STEM and business fields. Two-thirds of foreign students pursuing a bachelor’s or higher degree are in science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM) or business, management and marketing fields, versus 48 percent of students in the United States. Both large (San Jose, Calif.) and small (Beaumont-Port Arthur, Texas) metro areas figure among those with the highest shares of their foreign students in STEM disciplines.
  • Forty-five (45) percent of foreign student graduates extend their visas to work in the same metropolitan area as their college or university. Metro areas that retain high shares of their foreign graduates under the temporary Optional Practical Training (OPT) program tend to be either large diversified economies (e.g., New York, Los Angeles), or specialized labor markets that align closely with foreign graduates’ training (e.g., Honolulu, Seattle, Las Vegas).

These findings suggest that foreign students can provide important economic benefits to their U.S. metropolitan destinations—serving as bridges back to their growing home cities and offering valuable skills to local employers. More metropolitan leaders should emulate leading practices that capitalize on the knowledge and relationships of foreign students to strengthen local economies while also maximizing students’ educational and professional experiences in the United States.

 

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