Higher education is one of the world’s leading “exports”
To compete in today’s knowledge-driven economy, college-bound students are increasingly going global in their pursuit of a top-notch degree. Since 2001, the number of students pursuing studies abroad has more than doubled, from 2.1 million to 5.0 million in 2018.
As one result, higher education is fast becoming one of the world’s leading “exports.” Many people may not think of education as an “export,” but when an international student comes to the United States, for example, the monies spent on tuition, fees and living expenses are considered “exports” of education services.
The current world leader in education exports is the United States, whose 7,021 two- and four-year colleges and universities attracted nearly a quarter of the world’s international students in 2018. According to the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC), revenues from U.S. higher education accounted for about one-fourth of the $903 billion global education services industry in 2011.
International students are the consumers of higher education exports
On the other side of the equation, the world’s leading “consumers” of higher education are China and India, both of whom see enormous benefits in sending hundreds of thousands of their students abroad to take advantage of educational opportunities and to bring that knowledge home.
Chinese students, for example, make up 33 percent of all international students in the United States, according to a 2019 report by the Institute of International Education (IIE), while the share of students from India has also grown dramatically. In 2018, China sent 369,548 students to America, while India sent 202,014. For both groups of students, the most popular fields of study are science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), followed by business and management.
American schools also benefit from the presence of international students, which is one reason why their numbers are rising (although their share of total U.S. college enrollment is still only about five percent). In addition to the cultural and social diversity these students bring, they also pay “full freight” – out-of-state tuition in the case of public universities or sticker price in the case of private schools. At some schools, international students even pay extra. At the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, for example, international students paid a $2,800 surcharge during the 2012-2013 school year.
These well-paying students have been a boon for schools facing rising costs or cash-strapped by cuts in state education budgets. But even elite institutions find these students attractive. For example, according to the ITC, foreign students made up at least 15 percent of the students entering Boston University, Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania during the 2011-2012 school year and at least 10 percent of students at such flagship state schools as the University of California-Berkeley. Many schools also actively recruit foreign students and even hire “brokers” to find students abroad. The ITC also reports that a growing number of public colleges and universities are forming state-wide consortia, such as “Study New Jersey” and “Study Wisconsin,” to host recruiting fairs and conferences for foreign students.
Global competition to provide higher education
American schools, however, are increasingly facing competition from other countries that see the same opportunities. India, for example, recently decided to raise by 10,000 the number of foreign students admitted to its engineering schools as a way to improve the prestige of its national universities. As a result, the U.S. share of the international student market is slipping. While the number of international students going to America continues to climb, its overall share of these students in 2016 was three percent lower than it was in 2001.
While the dominance of U.S. higher education will likely continue for quite some time, competition for the world’s “best and brightest” will only get more fierce.
This article was updated as of November 20, 2019.
Anne Kim is a contributing editor to Washington Monthly and the author of Abandoned: America’s Lost Youth and the Crisis of Disconnection, forthcoming in 2020 from the New Press. Her writings on economic opportunity, social policy, and higher education have appeared in numerous national outlets, including the Washington Monthly, the Washington Post, Governing and Atlantic.com, among others. She is a veteran of the think tanks the Progressive Policy Institute and Third Way as well as of Capitol Hill, where she worked for Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN). Anne has a law degree from Duke University and a bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia.