Why Do International Students Come to the United States for College?

International Students Study in the US
Nearly 1 million international students study at colleges and universities across the United States, up 40% from 10 years ago.

That is an amazing increase when you consider that international students pay up to three times more than in-state students at public universities.

At Arizona State University, the public university with the largest number of international students (10,678 students, or about 14% of the total student population), in-state undergraduates pay $10,370, and international undergraduates pay $28,270 in base tuition and fees for the 2016-17 academic year.

On top of paying significantly higher tuition, international students are largely paying out of pocket for their education at public colleges, rather than using financial aid. In fact, about 72% of funding for international college students comes from personal and family funds, as well as home country government or university assistance, per the U.S. Commerce and Education Departments.

Are they all independently wealthy and don’t need the money?


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No and no. Foreign students are prohibited from securing financial aid or student loans because American banks often won’t recognize their credit histories until after they’ve graduated and entered the U.S. labor market, according to SelfScore.

That being said, why are the numbers of international students still increasing?

One reason? Excellence. Thirteen of the top 20 best universities in the world are housed in the United States, based on a ranking by Quacquarelli Symonds World University.

One of the main factors behind this is that the top universities in the Unites States—Harvard, MIT, and Princeton—invest about $165,000 on each student per year. By comparison, Oxford and Cambridge don’t invest more than $55,000; and Spanish universities barely reach $11,000 per student.

More money invested on each student helps to produce higher quality lectures, because it attracts the best teachers—most of whom have PhD degrees in their specialty. Lots of them lend their professional expertise to large companies, businessmen, or CEOs from big industries, or serve directly in the government. Also, many of them work academically full time, which helps them plant roots and establish a highly dedicated academic relationship with their students.

The United States also wins the numbers game by offering more options for higher education than any other country. There are several thousand colleges and universities in the United States, at least 10 times as many campuses as there are anywhere else. Additionally, international students can choose from a wide variety of schools and program types in the United States, including:

  • Community Colleges offering Associate’s Degrees, Certificates, Vocational Degrees, and Bachelor’s Degrees
  • Vocational Schools offering certifications for particular vocations that do not require a degree
  • Colleges and Universities providing anything from Associate’s Degrees to Doctoral Degrees
  • Graduate Schools offering Master’s- and Doctorate-level degrees and certificates
  • Seminaries that provide religious education for future ministers and clergy members

Another reason international students enroll here is that most American four-year institutions allow students to participate in a two-year liberal arts education while they figure out what they want to major in; and then they do two years of more intense study in the field that they have chosen.


Learn the Secrets to Recruiting International Students in this Free eBook


This is different than the rest of the world where a student applies to a specific major within a university and then studies that major for four years.

Consider what Junfeng “Jayden” Guan chose to do. Jayden is an electrical engineering student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). He turned down an offer at a Chinese university in Shanghai and chose to attend UIUC without ever having been to the United States. Why? Because a western education offered him the freedom to choose his focus of study.

“I want to go where I can learn whatever I want,” he explained.

Jayden is representative of many Chinese students today who want to escape a schooling system where test scores determine what subjects they will study.

“This distinctively American approach to undergraduate education is not the prevailing pattern in most other countries with strong universities. In most of Europe and China, students chose their major field of study when they apply for admission.

Once admitted, they do not have the freedom that you have to test your interest in a wide variety of subjects; they specialize immediately. Similarly, in much of the world students choose a profession in their final year of secondary school; they begin the study of law and medicine as first year undergraduates.”   —Richard Levin, President, Yale University-2004 Freshman Address

The liberal arts education in the United States also offers several advantages over other countries’ degree programs that overemphasize technical capabilities but neglect vital skills such as critical and creative thinking, effective oral and written communication abilities, and, most importantly, problem-solving skills.

As international students return to their home countries, they are finding that employers highly value these skills they developed from studying in the United States.

Adil Husain is the Pakistani-born CEO and founder of Emerging Asia Group, a consulting firm in Shanghai, China. As a graduate of Middlebury College in Vermont, Mr. Husain has seen first-hand how much employers in China value an American college education.

“I think a four-year, liberal-arts undergraduate education in the United States is superior to other options, such as studying in the UK or Australia,” says Mr. Husain. “The critical thinking, writing, and reading skills that you gain from a well-rounded education are the kind of skills that employers like us are looking for.”

In summary, both international students and companies deeply value the credibility of an American education. The United States offers the best universities, more of them to choose from, a wider variety of school types among them, and schools invest more money per student, which has resulted in greater quality and increased success.

Add to all this the fact that students can handpick from many program types, where top-notch teachers offer an unsurpassed education that focuses on teaching vital cognitive skills alongside technical abilities. It’s safe to conclude that the overwhelming advantages an education in the United States provides will continue to draw international students in ever-increasing numbers for the foreseeable future. This should serve as a comfort to recruiters and provide some long-view perspective in the face of declining applications from international students to American colleges.

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Patrick McCrystal

Patrick McCrystal

I'm a Business Development Manager of International at EducationDynamics. I enjoy reading about international affairs, reading and writing about marketing, and exploring all the history the city of Philadelphia has to offer. You may contact me directly at pmccrystal@educationdynamics.com

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