Study Abroad Trends for US and International Students

What does the latest report reveal about student mobility?

Study Abroad Trends for US and International Students

Earlier in November, the Institute of International Education (IIE) released the 2017 Open Doors Report presenting the most recent trends for US students who study abroad as well as for international students studying at higher education institutions in the United States.

The report reveals a rather positive picture of higher education and plenty of intriguing insights for people looking to get a better understanding of the field. Here are the new directions in student mobility, the most popular geographic destinations, and the most sought-after fields of study for students.

US students studying abroad

According to IIE’s Open Doors, more than 325,000 US students received academic credit for study abroad in the 2015/2016 academic period, which is an increase on previous years. Although this number takes into account all levels of higher education studies (undergraduate and graduate), it certainly illustrates the growing interest in international degrees for US applicants. In particular, 12.1% of US students located abroad are enrolled in a graduate-level study, while 7% of them are Masters students. The rest include Doctoral students and other Graduate students.

Top destinations

Even though the majority of US students prefer to remain in their home country and participate in local programmes, those who do travel abroad choose from a wide range of destinations. Taking a look at the leading countries reveals that Europe continues to attract most of the American students who decide to obtain a degree abroad. The top five this year comprise the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, France, and Germany. China takes sixth place as the top non-European country that registered the most US students. For those interested to observe the fluctuations in student mobility throughout the years, the Open Doors report also provides interactive comparative tables that show which countries have generated significant changes in interest from the US. For instance, while France and China registered a decrease in the number of US students enrolled in local programmes, other top-10 countries such as Germany, Ireland, Australia, and Japan show a significant increase compared to the 2014/2015 academic period.

Top fields of study

Similarly to previous years, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) and Business and Management studies are the two fields attracting the highest percentage of US students abroad – 25.2% for STEM and 20.9% for Business and Management. Notably, these are also the only two disciplines that reported a growth in numbers. Areas such as Social Sciences, Foreign Languages, Arts, and Communications and Journalism are also among the preferred fields for Americans, although their student numbers have not increased as much throughout the years.

International students in the US

Another positive trend from the report reveals that an increasing number of international students also continue to show interest in studying in the US since the country offers high quality education as well as diverse options to choose from. According to the Open Doors report, over one million international students were enrolled in local higher education institutions in 2016/2017 which is more than any of the previous academic years. “In 2016/2017, there were 85% more international students studying at US colleges and universities than were reported a decade ago,” the report’s executive summary states.

When it comes to graduate studies in particular, Doctorate-granting universities and Masters colleges and universities are the two institutional types that report the most international students.

Leading places of origin

Taking a look at the countries sending the largest number of students to the US confirms Asia’s growing interest in this market. In fact, nearly 50% of international students in the US come from China and India, which are the first and second countries on the list, respectively. Rounding off the top five are South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Canada. When it comes to European interest in US studies, the United Kingdom, Germany, and France report the highest numbers of students from the old continent. With today’s expanding rates of globalisation, ease of travel, and ever newer opportunities for education, we are certainly bound to witness more exciting changes in student mobility.

Top fields of study

Engineering and Business and Management are the two most sought-after study fields for internationals in the US, as well, with over 400,000 foreign students enrolled in such programmes in the US in 2016/2017. Engineering and Math and Computer Science, specifically, have recorded significant growth in terms of student numbers compared to the previous academic year. In comparison, the Business and Management field observes numbers similar to the 2015/2016 period.

Sources of funding

Another very interesting aspect worth investigating is focused on the primary sources of funding for international students in the US. Among students enrolled in a graduate-level programme, personal and family funds play the largest role for funding their studies. Over 60% of foreign Masters and other graduate students in the US manage to fund their studies from their own pocket without external help. The most common options for those who rely on external funding in the country include funding from US colleges and universities (or as clarified by IIE, teaching and research assistantships) and funding from foreign governments or universities.


Despite the political changes in the US and UK that raised fears of possible negative effects on international education mobility, positive trends for growth in student numbers are certainly visible in both directions in the latest reports. 

Read: How to Choose a Destination for Your Masters Studies

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