Last Academic Year, International College Student Enrollment Grew in Three New England States and Declined in Three … This Year Will Be Different

By Stephanie M. Murphy

The total number of enrolled international students at New England colleges and universities increased by 2% at all academic levels in academic year 2019-20, according to the 2020 Open Doors Report on International Education Exchange.

The study, published annually by IIE since 1948-49, and in partnership with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs since 1972, reports on the number of international students enrolled at U.S. higher education institutions.

Nationally, the total number of international students in the U.S. decreased by 1.8%—marking the first decline since AY 2006-06. Undergraduate international student enrollment in the U.S. fell by 2.9% in AY 2019-20 compared with AY 2019-19. At the graduate level, although international enrollment of doctoral students increased by 3.1%, total international graduate student enrollment in the U.S. decreased by 0.9%. International students account for 5.5% of total higher education enrollment across the U.S.

While the Open Doors data have typically included a list of the top destinations for international students pursuing a postsecondary education abroad—a position the U.S. held last year and had maintained for at least a century—curiously, this year’s report omits this information with no explanation.

International Student Enrollment in the U.S. by Level

Level of Education AY 2018-19 AY 2019-20 % Change

Total Undergraduate







Associate 70,286 62,950 -10.4%
Bachelor’s 361,644 356,371 -1.5%
Total Graduate 377,943 374,435 -0.9%
Master’s 220,622 211,283 -4.2%
Doctoral 132,581 136,678 +3.1%
Professional 12,132 12,014 -1%

All International Students (including non-degree seeking)

1,095,299 1,075,496 -1.8%

Source: NEBHE analysis of data from the 2020 Open Doors Report.

*Rankings include all 50 U.S. states, in addition to Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Despite the overall decline in international student enrollment across the U.S., the figures are mixed across New England. The report shows:

Total international student enrollment increased by 2% in AY 2019-20 over the previous academic year. This growth was driven by increases in Connecticut (+1.9%), Maine (+10.9%) and Massachusetts (+3.7%). Last year, Massachusetts was the only New England state to see growth in foreign student enrollment compared with the previous year (+4.3%).

New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont saw sharp declines in international student enrollment in AY 2019-20. Among these states, New Hampshire had the steepest decline (-18.5%); Rhode Island had the smallest contraction (-2.8%). By comparison, last year Vermont had the sharpest decline in international student enrollment (-8.5%).

International Student Enrollment in New England by State

Location Number of International Students, AY 2019-20 % Change from AY 2018-19 Rank in the U.S.*

New England






Connecticut 15,112 +1.9% 20
Maine 1,480 +10.9% 48
Massachusetts 73,695 +3.7% 4
New Hampshire 3,531 -18.5% 41
Rhode Island 5,225 -2.8% 37
Vermont 1,549 -8.5% 47

Source: NEBHE analysis of data from the 2020 Open Doors Report.

*Rankings include all 50 U.S. states, in addition to Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Massachusetts is one of only six U.S. states to host more than 50,000 international students. Nationally, more than one-third of all international students enrolled in U.S. colleges in AY 2019-20 were in California, New York and Texas.

Despite concerns in academic admissions offices about China’s deepening economic downturn and the effects of the retaliatory tariffs enacted by President Trump, China remained the largest source of international students in New England. In AY 2019-20, 36% of international students enrolled in all postsecondary programs across the region originated from China. Over the same period, 372,532 Chinese students enrolled at universities across the U.S., which accounted for 35% of the international student population. Enrollment of Chinese students at American institutions was up 0.8% in AY 2019-20 over the previous year. Just as last year, the second highest share of foreign students in the U.S. originated from India and the third highest, from South Korea. Of all foreign students in the U.S., 53% originated from China and India alone.

International students are major contributors to New England’s economy. In AY 2019-20, international students contributed an estimated $7 billion to the overall U.S. economy, with $4.3 billion added to the New England economy alone, according to NAFSA International Student Economic Value Tool. NAFSA also estimates that for every eight international students, three U.S. jobs are created and supported by spending occurring in the higher education, accommodation, dining, retail, transportation, telecommunications and health insurance sectors.

International students are vital to the nation’s domestic vitality and global relations. Domestically, foreign students contribute to the U.S. economy and represent a significant share of jobs added. Internationally, these students help open new chapters in U.S. relations with foreign countries. Since our analysis of the 2018 Open Doors Report, we have warned that New England’s strong international enrollment figures may be in jeopardy. The negative foreign enrollment growth shown in the 2019 and 2020 data suggests that our predictions may be coming to pass. Given the concerning dip in the region’s overall higher education enrollment due, in large part, to the myriad challenges related to the current global health crisis, we anticipate a continued, and likely more precipitous drop-off in international students for AY 2020-21. Indeed, early evidence points to this conclusion: According to an IIE survey of roughly 700 American postsecondary institutions, the total number of international students studying at U.S. universities—whether from within the U.S. or online from abroad—is down 16% this fall. Enrollments of new international students have decreased by 43% over the previous academic year.

Stephanie M. Murphy is the associate director of policy research and analysis at NEBHE.


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