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US Student Visas Issued to South Korean Students Slowing Down

The US has seen growth in the number of student visas issued, with visa issued numbers returning to pre-pandemic levels. As the third-largest source country for international students in the United States, South Korea continues to be a key player for the growth in the US.1

Today, we dive into the South Korean student market in the US’s international education sector. We take a look at what South Korean students are studying in the US and what the US can do to attract South Korean students moving forward.

Key Insights at a Glance

  • In 2021, South Korean students accounted for 4% of all international students in the US.
  • Undergraduate students accounted for 45% of South Korean students in the US in 2020/21.
  • More than 43% of South Korean students in the US were enrolled in STEM programs in 2020/21.
  • In 2020/21, one in four South Korean students were enrolled in Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.

This is the third article in our series looking at source market trends in the US. Previously, we looked at China and India’s growth in the US. Stay tuned for our article on Saudi Arabia in the coming weeks.

The US’s Continued Dependence on South Korean Enrollment

The number of South Korean international students in the US has decreased since 2010/11. In 2010/11, numbers peaked with just over 73,000 South Korean students in the US.

The number of South Korean students in the US has been on a decline since 2016/17, with just over 39,000 South Korean students in the US in 2020/21. This represented a decrease of 20.7% from 2019/20, when there were just under 50,000 South Korean students in the US.

Since 2018/19, the percentage of South Korean students in the US international student population has remained steady. In 2018/19, South Korea’s student population was 4.7% of all international students in the US, which was only 0.4% less than the share of South Korean students in 2020/21.

Despite a decrease in South Korea’s share of the US’s international student population, the US’s dependence on South Korean students remains strong. South Korean students contributed almost $2 billion to the American international education sector in 2020/2021. This represented over 5% of financial contributions to the US’s international education sector in 2020/21.

Why Has the Growth of South Korea’s Student Population Slowed in the US?

For many countries, the pandemic created a global slowdown for international education. Border closures limited travel, visa processing times increased, and students were more hesitant to study abroad due to health and safety concerns. However, as we can see above, South Korea’s market growth began slowing down in the US before the pandemic, and continued to taper into 2020/21. These are trends that other destination countries, like Canada and the UK, have seen over this period as well.

For many years, South Korean students with US degrees stood out in the South Korean job market. However, with South Korean institutions growing in competition globally, many South Korean students are choosing to stay closer to home and build their connections closer to the South Korean job market. Coupled with a recent economic slowdown at home, we are expecting a continued decrease in the number of South Korean students studying in the US. This poses greater competition for US schools to attract more South Korean students to the US, with fewer students choosing to study in the US.

In addition to this, the South Korean student age population has been on a decline across all school levels, except middle school. This decline is expected to continue over the next 15 years, with a sharp drop from 2037 to 2041. With a rapidly aging society, South Korea’s student population is expected to continue to decrease, with one of the world’s lowest birth rates.

Despite these setbacks, the US remains one of the most popular study abroad destinations for South Korean students. Last year, the US Departments of State and Education made a joint statement in support of the country’s international education mission to attract more international students to the country. In support of this commitment, the Biden administration also announced policy changes to create additional post-graduate work opportunities for international students studying STEM earlier this year. With more South Korean international students choosing STEM, these additional post-graduate opportunities can further attract students to choose the US as their study abroad destination.

What Do South Korean Students Study in the US?

The chart below shows the number of South Korean students across the different study levels of the US’s higher education market since 2015/16:

Undergraduate studies has been the most popular study level for South Korean students in the US. In 2020/21, undergraduate students accounted for 45% of South Korean students in the US, despite a 24% decrease overall.

Graduate studies has been an increasingly popular study level for South Korean students. In 2020/21, just over 30% of South Korean students pursued graduate studies in the US. This represented an increase of just under 6 percentage points from 2019/2020.

Optional Practical Training (OPT) saw the second-lowest decrease across all study levels, just after graduate studies. OPT allows students to find off-campus employment or internships in their field of study. In 2020/21, OPT decreased by just over 15%, only 9 percentage points more than the decrease in graduate studies.

More South Korean Students are Choosing STEM

In the chart below, we see that Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences has become the increasingly dominant field of study South Korean students choose to enter in the US.

STEM2 accounted for more than 43% of South Korean students in the US in 2020/21. Engineering, in particular, was the most popular STEM field for South Korean students, accounting for just under 15% of South Korean students in 2020/21.

Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences was the most popular field of study for South Korean students in 2020/21. One in four South Korean students chose Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences programs as their field of study in 2021/21.

Business and Management was the fifth popular field of study for South Korean students, with a decrease in student enrollment over the past 5 years. In 2020/21, one in eight South Korean students were enrolled in Business and Management programs, despite a drop of just over four percentage points in enrollment from 2015/16.

Looking Forward

The US has been a popular destination market for South Korean students, attracting students with its highly regarded institutions and prestige. However, recent trends point to a downturn of South Korean students in the US, posing greater competition for US schools to attract South Korean students.

School reputation remains a key consideration for South Korean students looking to begin their study abroad journey. To attract South Korean students, US institutions should:

  • Consider employing a combination of traditional and online campaigns to attract South Korean parents.
  • Leverage existing relationships with South Korean communities and alumni who can speak to prospective students about their study abroad experience.
  • Expand exchange programs with South Korean institutions to build corridors for South Korean students to enroll in.

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About the ApplyInsights Team

Led by ApplyBoard Co-Founder and CMO Meti Basiri, the ApplyInsights Team analyzes the latest government, third-party, and ApplyBoard internal data, to provide a complete picture of trends in the international education industry. They also work with industry experts and ApplyBoard team members to gather local insights across key source and destination countries, where ApplyBoard has helped more than 300,000 students around the world.

 

FOOTNOTES:

1. All figures include undergraduate, graduate, and non-degree programs, as well as students enrolled in the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program. All enrollment numbers are calculated based on academic year. US data courtesy of the Institute of International Education (IIE) Open Doors Report.

2. The STEM field of study consists of engineering, health professions, math and computer science, and physical and life sciences.

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