ApplyInsights: International Student Trends in California

Leveraging its beautiful landscapes and cities, world-class universities, and boundary-pushing culinary scene, California has long been the top US study destination for domestic and international students alike. But according to recent data from the Institute of International Education (IIE), the international student population dropped 17% in California during the 2020-21 academic year.1 This marked the third straight year the number of international students in the Golden State declined.

Despite this slowdown, we expect California to come roaring back as a top global competitor for international students. Many institutions in California provide highly regarded curricular practical training (CPT). CPT helps students gain valuable work experience and can serve as a pathway to visa sponsorship. Also, California has many prestigious community colleges, several of which include direct pathways to universities and the Ivy League.2

Key Insights at a Glance

  • California accounted for 15% of the US’s international student population in higher education in 2020-21.
  • International students constituted just under 5% of California’s total student population in higher education during 2020-21. This is the first time they dipped below 5% over the last six years.
  • Despite the state’s downward trend since 2015-16, six of its top 10 institutions saw growth over the six-year period.

This is the first article in our series delving into the study trends for the most popular states in the US international education market. Look for articles on Texas and Florida in the coming weeks!

California’s Study Trends in 2020-21

International study in the US has been on a downward trajectory since the 2014-15 academic year. Between former President Trump’s unwelcoming stance toward international talent and the US’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, international students increasingly looked elsewhere for their education.

The line graph below shows that the growth of the international student population in both California and the larger US slowed over several years before a sharp drop in the 2020-21 academic year.

California consistently outperformed the rest of the US pre-pandemic. The Golden State’s year-over-year growth plateaued at 11% in 2015-16, the year the rest of the US began its downward slope. California’s 17% decline in international students in 2020-21 marked the first year that the state significantly underperformed the rest of the US over this period.

Despite this downward trend, we anticipate that positive change is on the horizon for both California and the rest of the US. President Biden has committed to restoring the US’s international reputation. Alongside increased accessibility of COVID-19 vaccines, study visa applications to US institutions soared on the ApplyBoard platform in 2021.

Top Five Source Markets for California Students

Since 2015-16, the top five source market student populations in California have accounted for more than 14% of all international students in the US. The chart below breaks down these source markets, with the option to toggle between academic years.

China, India, and South Korea have remained California’s top three markets since the 2015-16 academic year. Chinese students increased their share of California’s international student population by 10 percentage points since 2015-16. In 2020-21, Chinese students accounted for 45% of California’s international students in higher education, whereas they comprised 33% of international students across the rest of the US. Vietnam overtook Japan as California’s fifth-largest source market in 2020-21.

Top 10 Most Popular Institutions in California for International Students

Which institutions attract the most international students to California? Let’s take a look at the past 10 years.

The University of Southern California (USC) remained the number one destination for international students throughout the five-year period. University of California (UC) campuses—San Diego, Los Angeles (UCLA), Berkeley, Irvine (UCI), and Davis—accounted for the next five, with UC San Diego overtaking UCLA for second place in 2020-21. San Jose State University (SJSU), Stanford, and UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) all welcomed within 100 international students of each other, while the Academy of Art University continued its downward trajectory for the fifth straight year.

The international student population dropped across the board for these institutions in 2020-21, with only UC San Diego (-4%), UC Davis (-6%), and SJSU (-8%) experiencing a decline under 10%. But, even including 2020-21’s sharp drop, six of these 10 remain up compared to the 2015-16 academic year, when the state’s growth began declining. The graphs below highlight each institution’s performance. You can toggle between the two time frames.

Study and Work in California

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs accounted for 54% of international students across the US in 2020-21, and Business and Management programs another 16%.3 Combined, these two fields of study comprised 83% of all OPTs in 2020-21.

Many institutions in California offer Curricular Practical Training (CPT) and Optional Practical Training (OPT), particularly in STEM and Business. CPT and OPT are becoming more vital recruitment strategies for departments to separate themselves from their competition, as CPT and OPT provide students with invaluable working experience and a pathway to visa sponsorship.4

San Francisco State University, California State University (CSU) East Bay, and CSU Long Beach are just a few institutions offering students competitive CPT and OPT.

Community colleges also present international students with opportunities to study at a highly regarded institution while building career pathways. Guided, cross-sector partnerships fostered at community colleges can reduce barriers that students face as they transition between institutions and employers.5

Students interested in building foundational and career knowledge can check out San Mateo Colleges of Silicon Valley, Santa Monica College, and Santa Barbara City College.

Looking Forward – How Institutions Can Attract More International Students

We are excited by California’s potential to come roaring back as an enticing destination for international students. As President Biden continues to enact immigration-friendly policies and vaccines become more accessible across the globe, international students will look once again to the many prestigious institutions that the US—and California specifically—can offer.

Though California has the third highest cost of living in the US,6 its landscapes and cities give the state natural competitive advantages. Here are our thoughts on what institutions in California can actively do to further engage international students:

  • Leverage its pre-existing multicultural communities built through a long history of attracting people from around the world, as California is the most diverse state in the US.7
  • Continue innovating the scale of their cross-sector pathways, particularly at the community college level.
  • Emphasize funding packages and opportunities that help students offset the state’s high cost of living.
  • Further build CPT and OPT offerings, and build recruitment strategies around CPT and OPT as a pathway to visa sponsorship.

Published: January 18, 2022

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About the ApplyInsights Team

Led by ApplyBoard Co-Founder and CMO Meti Basiri, the ApplyInsights Team analyzes the latest government and third-party data, alongside 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.


1. Institute of International Education (IIE), Open Doors 2021.

2. Shirag Shemmassian, Transferring to the Ivy League from Community College. October 14, 2021.

3. We delved deeper into international students flocking to STEM programs across the US last year.

4. It is worth noting that STEM students can get an additional year of OPT.

5. Community College Research Center, Using Guided Pathways to Build Cross-Sector Pathways Partnerships. October 2021.

6. World Population Review, Cost of Living Index by State 2021.

7. USNews, California is the Most Diverse State, Report Says. September 10, 2020.


The most important stories in international education, backed by data