ApplyInsights: State and Regional Trends in US International Education

The Institute of International Education (IIE)’s Open Doors 2020 report includes a comprehensive breakdown of where international students are studying and working in the United States. 

The top-line takeaway from the report? The total number of international students in the US fell by 1.8% in the 2019/20 academic year. This marked the first annual decline in the US international student population since 2005/06, and importantly, the decline predated the major impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which first struck the US in March 2020. 

For today’s article, I’m going to dig a little deeper into the geographic trends in Open Doors 2020 to see which parts of the US better resisted this decline. 

See my previous post for a look at international students in the US by field of study.

Northeast Now Top US Destination for International Students

The US census splits the country into four main geographic regions: the Northeast, Midwest, West, and South. Throughout the 2010/11 to 2018/19 academic years,1 the South was the top destination for international students. That changed in 2019/20, when the Northeast edged ahead:Map of the US showing the distribution of international students in the country by census region in the 2019/20 academic year. Examined in detail below.The Northeast was the only region to grow its international student population in 2019/20, adding a net 2,448 students (0.8%). The Midwest lost more than 10,742 on net, declining 4.6%. 

Looking at international student populations over time, we can see that while all four regions have been on the same general trajectory, there are subtle differences:Line chart showing the distribution of international students in the US by census region from academic year 2010/11 to 2019/20. Examined in detail below.The international student population in the Midwest peaked in 2016/17 and declined every year after. As of 2019/20, the Midwest was down 6.7% from its peak. The international student population out West peaked a year later, in 2017/18, and has dropped 2.9% since then. 2019/20 marked the first year in which the number of international students in the South declined, falling 2.6% from 2018/19. 

Of course, all of these totals will drop further with the pandemic. The IIE’s 2020 Enrollment Survey, conducted in November, revealed that new international student enrollment at US schools fell by 43% in Fall 2020, even when including students who began their studies online from outside the US. But regional disparities in recruitment performance before the pandemic could hold clues about how those regions are performing during the pandemic and how quickly they will recover afterward. 

Let’s examine each region in a little more detail. 

International Education in the US Northeast

The 0.8% growth in the Northeast’s international student population in 2019/20 was its smallest increase since the 2010/11 academic year. It also marked the sixth year in a row in which the Northeast’s rate of growth declined. 

New York and Massachusetts drove what growth did occur. The two states ranked second and fourth, respectively, in total international student population across the US. New York and Massachusetts also led all states in terms of raw population growth in 2019/20, adding 2,634 and 2,597 students.2 Much smaller Maine led all states in percentage growth, at 10.9%. In contrast, Pennsylvania’s student population fell by 1,748, the sixth-largest decline among all states. 

The Northeast continues to punch above its weight as a destination for international students. In fact, if we consider international students as a share of total higher education enrollment, five of the nine Northeast states rank among the top 10 overall:

International Students as a Share of Total Higher Education Enrollment, 2019/20
Rank State Total Students** Int’l Students % Int’l
1 Massachusetts* 499,769 73,695 14.7%
2 District of Columbia 97,776 13,046 13.3%
3 Delaware 60,700 6,342 10.4%
4 New York* 1,250,287 126,911 10.2%
5 Connecticut* 197,480 15,112 7.7%
6 Indiana 388,348 28,136 7.2%
7 Pennsylvania* 700,329 50,070 7.1%
8 Washington 367,056 26,089 7.1%
9 Illinois 738,448 51,966 7.0%
10 Rhode Island* 80,868 5,225 6.5%
* Northeastern state.
** Data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Reflects enrollment in Fall 2018, the most recent year for which data was available at the time Open Doors 2020 was published.

Massachusetts’ Northeastern University (17,491) and Boston University (11,158) both ranked among the top 10 institutions for international students in 2019/20. Together, they accounted for nearly 40% of the international student population in Massachusetts last year. 

New York placed two of its own schools in the top 10: New York University, the top destination for international students in the US with 21,093 students, and Columbia University, number four with 17,145. New York is home to 15 of the top 100 institutions in the US for international students in 2019/20, the most of any state. 

International Education in the US South

The 2.6% decline in 2019/20 in the international student population in the US South followed four straight years of shrinking growth. Net growth for the region between 2014/15 and 2019/20 was 12%. 

More than 60% of the South’s decline in 2019/20 came from Texas. Texas lost 4,796 students on net, the largest decrease of any state in the US. The third most popular destination for international students in the country, Texas is an outlier among top host states:

  • Texas is the only state among the top 20 destinations for international students for which India, not China, is the top source country.
  • Mexico is the third-largest source country for international students in Texas. Remarkably, Mexico isn’t one of the five largest source countries for any of the other top 20 destinations. 

Both India and Mexico saw their international student populations in the US fall in 2019/20, which likely contributed to Texas’ decline. Of the nine Texas institutions that made the top 100 in 2019/20, just three—Texas A&M University, the University of North Texas, and Texas Tech University—grew their international student populations that year. The University of Texas at Dallas has the state’s largest international student population, with 8,787, but it declined 6.5% in 2019/20. 

Tennessee, Delaware, and Arkansas all saw a 14 to 16% decrease in their international student population in 2019/20, contributing to the overall decline in the South. North Carolina went the other way, adding a net 828 students for 3.8% growth. 

International Education in the US West

International education in the US West is dominated by California, the most populous state in the Union and the top destination for international students in the US. In 2019/20, 160,592 international students studied or worked in California, representing 62.8% of the international student population in the West and 14.9% in the US as a whole. Between 2014/15 and 2019/20, California’s international student population grew by 25,462. Together, the other 12 states in the West lost 4,788 students on net. 

The figure below shows how California’s growth as an international student destination has changed over the past decade:Line chart showing the change in California's international student population from the 2010/11 to 2019/20 academic year. Examined in detail below.The Golden State gained 14,198 students in 2015/16, the largest increase of any year in the sample.3 After that, growth in California’s student population steadily declined, mirroring a trend we’ve seen nationwide, before going negative the past two years. That even California struggled to continue growing its international education market during the Trump years is an important reminder of the work cut out for President Biden and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona in rebuilding post-pandemic. 

There were a few bright spots out west: Utah, Idaho, and Nevada all grew their international student populations by more than 4% in 2019/20. The University of Utah, Brigham Young University,4 and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas all ranked among the top 200 institutions for international students in 2019/20. 

International Education in the US Midwest

The US Midwest saw the earliest and sharpest decline in international student population among the four census regions.

From 2014/15 to 2019/20, the number of students in the Midwest declined by 661 even as the other regions added upwards of 20,000 students each.

Missouri, Michigan, and Ohio all saw declines of more than 1,800 students last year. Illinois, the top destination in the region and the fifth most popular state for international students overall, dropped 1,758 students on net, its first year-over-year decline since 2010/11. Despite this, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign added 465 international students in 2019/20 and remains the top school in the Midwest and the number five school overall. 

Minnesota was the only Midwestern state to grow its international student enrollment in 2019/20, up 99 students (0.6%). The University of Minnesota, Twin Cities was the top destination for international students in Minnesota and the 26th nationwide. It added a net 254 students in 2019/20. 

Looking Forward

The international education industry in the United States has faced a challenging few years, but there is cause for optimism. According to President Biden, the US will have enough coronavirus vaccines for every adult in the country by the end of May. 

More than 76 million doses of the vaccine have been administered, covering 15.3% of the population, and the US remains on track to meet Mr. Biden’s pledge of delivering 100 million doses in his first 100 days in office. – BBC

Confirmed COVID-19 cases in the US have fallen to 68,000 per day, down from an early-January peak of 300,000. This is critical, as studies have shown that the US lags far behind other top destination countries for student perceptions of how they have handled the virus. Effectively combatting the virus is the single most important thing the US government can do to bolster its international education industry. It’s encouraging to see the progress the country has made over the past two months.  

As our analysis today has shown, however, the gains and losses across the international education industry in the US are rarely felt evenly across states and regions. Some states, including Texas and Mississippi, have already relaxed mask mandates and other pandemic-related restrictions, even as the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have warned of another surge in cases if the country lapses into complacency. 

While I’m optimistic for a strong recovery for the larger US market, states who open up too early run the risk of further outbreaks that will dissuade international students from returning.

Published: March 4, 2021

Subscribe to ApplyInsights

Sign up for the latest insights on international education.

Meti BasiriMeti Basiri
Co-Founder and Chief Marketing Officer (CMO)
Meti is driven by the belief that education is a right, not a privilege. He leads the International Recruitment, Partner Relations, and Marketing teams at ApplyBoard, working to make education accessible to people around the world. Meti has been instrumental in building partnerships with 1,500+ educational institutions across Canada, the United, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Working with over 5,000 international recruitment partners, ApplyBoard has assisted over 150,000 students in their study abroad journey. Follow Meti on LinkedIn for more access to ApplyInsights and key industry trends.


1. Previous data not available. All data courtesy of the Institute of International Education (IIE).

2. New York added a net 2,634 students. Massachusetts added 2,597.

3. 2014/15 saw the largest percentage growth, at 11.1%.

4. Both BYU’s Provo, Utah, and Rexburg, Idaho, campuses ranked among the top 200.