Stanford in the 2010s: Stanford’s undergraduate student body is more international than ever. But how about the 2020s?

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View the full dataset assembled for this article at the Stanford Open Data Portal.

The undergraduate student body at Stanford is more international than ever. The percentage of international undergraduates at Stanford exceeded the national average every year between 2010 and 2020, and the gap has grown over time. 


But as the world struggles to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, it is uncertain whether this trend will continue over the next few years. Schools across the U.S. are skeptical about maintaining international student enrollment in the next academic year, due to concerns over access to medical resources and ongoing visa delays. Facing a record-high unemployment rate, the Trump administration is also leaning towards the “America-First” agenda, suggesting restrictions on the employment of foreign graduates.

The percent of international students in the undergraduate student body has increased from 7.2% to 10.7% between 2010 and 2020, according to data from the Stanford Institutional Research & Decision Support (IR&DS) data. 

The trend lines show that Stanford is an outlier among U.S. higher education institutions overall. Between 2010 and 2019, the number of international undergraduates in the U.S. has increased from 290,000 to 430,000. The proportion of international undergraduates has increased by 1% between 2010 and 2019, but has consistently stayed below 3% throughout.

That gap has grown larger over the past four years. The rate of increase of the total international undergraduates in the U.S. has already been slowing down from 2016. And in 2018, the number of international undergraduates enrolled at U.S. higher education institutions in 2018 decreased by 11,000 from the previous year, the first drop since 2010, when Stanford added 90 more international students to its undergraduate student body.

But the trend of increasing proportions of international undergraduates fits with Stanford’s peer institutions.

The chart above shows the proportions of international students in each institution’s undergraduate student body over the past decade. Stanford is not the most “international” university in the U.S., compared to the six peer institutions The Daily examined: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown, Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn). For every year from 2010 to 2019, Harvard, Princeton, Brown and UPenn have had higher proportions of international undergraduates than Stanford.

In 2010, Stanford had a lower percentage of international undergraduates than most of its peers, but the sharp and consistent increase between 2010 and 2020 closed some of that gap. The only university among the peer institutions examined here that has shown a similar growth rate is UPenn, where 13% of the undergraduate body consists of international students.

What international undergraduates study has also changed over the past decade. In 2010, more international students studied majors registered under the School of Humanities and Science than those under the School of Engineering, according to the Stanford IR&DS data. 

But the gap between two schools has shrunk over time, and in 2017, the School of Engineering became the most popular school among international undergraduates. The tech industry’s hunt for STEM talent may be a factor in the steady rise in the number of engineering majors. 

Prospects for academic year 2020-2021

However, it is unclear whether the trend in international students’ enrollment will continue at Stanford, or at U.S. higher institutions more broadly. As the U.S. implements measures to control the spread of COVID-19, and with schools considering the feasibility of reopening in Fall 2020, many institutions are predicting a stagnation in the international student enrollment in the coming fall.

In an IIE survey, 88% of respondent institutions anticipate that international student enrollment will decrease in the 2020/21 academic year, primarily due to visa delays and ongoing travel restrictions. And 68% of respondent institutions that plan to have international students enrolled in summer 2020 anticipate some students will not be able to come to their campus. 

The political landscape also seems less favorable to international students’ post-graduate job prospects. The Trump administration announced last year that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would revise the practical training options available to nonimmigrant students on F visas, setting August 2020 as a target date for the amendment. As the national unemployment rate surges amid the pandemic, on Sunday, the White House reaffirmed its willingness to curb the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program to save jobs for American workers. The program allows foreign graduates to work in the U.S. up to 36 months, depending on their majors.

Stanford spokesperson E.J. Miranda told The Daily that the University could not speculate on how the uncertainty related to the pandemic might impact international student enrollment.

“We understand that individual circumstances may affect students’ plans and we will continue to provide information and work with them on their particular needs,” he wrote.

Contact Won-Gi Jung at jwongi ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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