Enrollment of international students at U.S. colleges and universities has rebounded from a pandemic plunge, growing at the fastest rate in four decades, with California again the top destination, according to a report released Monday.

Overall, U.S. higher education drew more than 1 million students from 210 places of origin for undergraduate, graduate, nondegree and work training programs in 2022-23, a 12% increase over the previous year.

Students from India powered the surge, growing in number by 35%, while those from China slightly declined but remained the largest group. Together, the world's two most populous countries accounted for 53% of all international students in the U.S., reported the Institute of International Education.

California remained the most popular state for international students. The largest number came from China and India — which collectively accounted for 56% of the total — along with South Korea, Taiwanand Japan. USC and University of California campuses in Berkeley, San Diego, Los Angeles and Irvine were the top destinations.

The robust growth has reversed a sharp decline in international students triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic in fall 2020, when health and safety concerns, travel restrictions and in-person class shutdownsdrove down new enrollment by nearly 46%, according to the institute. The recovery has brought relief to education and government officials, who rely on international students for academic, financial, cultural and even diplomatic benefits.

Allan E. Goodman, the institute's chief executive, hailed the "strong rebound" from the pandemic and the enduring allure of U.S. colleges and universities to students across the globe. The private nonprofit, based in New York with offices around the world, promotes international exchanges.

"International education is resilient and also integral to universities and countries looking to support global innovation, collaboration and peace," he said.

The students also support campus coffers — and the broader economy — by spending nearly $38 billion on tuition, fees, housing and other goods and services last year, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

As many U.S. colleges and universities struggle with financial woes and an uncertain future with declining numbers of high school graduates, more of them are looking to attract more students from abroad. In California, for instance, the number of high school graduates is expected to top out by 2025; the trend already has hit some U.S. regions, including the Northeast.

More than four-fifths of the nearly 3,000 colleges and universities that responded to the institute survey maintained or increased resources to recruit students in other countries. That included USC, which added staff to its offices in New Delhi and Bangalore in India, among other areas, said Anthony Bailey, vice president for global and online initiatives.

Bailey said USC has seen a 50% increase in new students from India in recent years — enrolling about 900 annually in 2022 and 2023 compared with about 600 each year before the pandemic. They are overwhelmingly enrolled in graduate programs in science, technology, engineering and math fields, he said.

Overall, graduate students made up 44% of the 1,057,188 international students enrolled in U.S. higher education institutions in 2022, compared with 33% for undergraduates; the rest were enrolled in workplace training and nondegree programs. Graduate student numbers increased by 21% in 2022 over the previous year.

Some of the graduate student growth reflects pent-up demand from students with undergraduate degrees who were not able to pursue advanced studies due to pandemic restrictions, said Diane Barnett, who heads college counseling at Boston-based Knovva Academy.

Bailey of USC said he expects a continued increase in students from India because it is now the most populous country in the world — surpassing China this year — with a growing economy and younger demographic than East Asian nations. Nearly 18% of India's population is age 15 to 24 compared with about 11% for China, 10% for South Korea and Taiwan and 9% for Japan, the institute reported.

However, California isn't the most popular state for students from India — Texas and New York are, the institute reported.

At UC, many campuses have intentionally reduced the number of international students, under political pressure to give more seats to Californians. In each of the last few years, the three most popular campuses — UCLA, UC Berkeley and UC San Diego — have been given state funding to reduce students from other countries and states by a total of 900.

Barnett, the college consultant, said families in China are aware of the growing UC restrictions and hedging their bets by applying to institutions in other states. In fact, New York University, Northeastern, Columbia and Arizona State enrolled more international students than any California campus last year.

"It is a huge time commitment to apply" to UC, Barnett said, noting the system's requirement to choose four of eight essay questions. "Your chances of getting in because you're not a state resident are incrementally lower. ... They're shifting and broadening their geography because the East Coast doesn't have the same state requirements."

Gaurav Khanna, an assistant professor of economics at UC San Diego, said geopolitics also played a role in the declining numbers of international students from China. He said continuing tensions with China is one reason the student numbers have not rebounded as they have with India. Khanna added that U.S. universities need to find ways to attract Chinese students back because they provide top-notch academic and research talent as well as revenue.

" India is going to be really important moving forward, but we need to figure out how to get Chinese students back," he said. "Chinese students have really propped universities up both with revenue streams and global talent."

At a briefing about the institute report last week, Chinese journalists asked U.S. officials about the impact of anti-Chinese sentiment on their nation's international student numbers.

Brenda Grewe, acting managing director of the U.S. State Department's visa office, assured them that a 2020 presidential proclamation restricting entry of China scholars with ties to the military applied only to a "very, very small group of people" and encouraged others to continue applying to study in the U.S.

"We very much welcome students from the People's Republic of China," said Marianne Craven, acting deputy assistant secretary for academic exchanges in the U.S. State Department. "They are a priority and valued by U.S. universities."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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