The number of international students in U.S. high schools has more than tripled over the last decade – with China almost single-handedly fuelling the rise.
Chinese students now make up almost half of all international secondary students in the U.S. – with the rise in numbers more than compensating for the falls from other parts of the world.
And rather than arriving on short-term exchange programs, increasing numbers are enrolling for the high school diploma, with the long-term aim a western university education.
New research shows there were almost 82,000 international students enrolled in U.S. high schools in fall 2016.
Although this represents just 0.5% of all U.S. high school students, the number has risen by 12% since 2013, and has more than tripled since 2004, according to a study by the Institute of International Education (IIE).
And a growing proportion are seeking a high school diploma. The research shows that the number on an exchange program has fallen slightly since 2013, but over the same period 22% more international students have enrolled on a visa allowing them to study for the diploma.
Further analysis reveals that China is the prime source for this increase. China was already the largest source of international students, and that has only been exacerbated in recent years.
But while numbers have fallen or remained largely static from the next four largest countries of origin – South Korea, Vietnam, Mexico and Japan – the number from China has risen by 48% since 2013, with Chinese students now making up 42% of all international students in U.S. high schools.
The reasons are not hard to find. A U.S. high school education is seen as a way of smoothing the path to what is increasingly being seen as the international holy grail of education, a place at a U.S. university.
Taking a high school diploma enables students to hone their English before entering higher education, as well as easing the transition, in both the cultural and educational spheres. Coupled with a burgeoning wealthy middle class in China, with the resources and ambition to seek higher education in the U.S. for their offspring, and it is a potent combination.
‘More international students are coming to the United States to pursue high school studies leading to a diploma, with the intent of preparing for U.S. higher education,’ said Rajika Bhandari, head of research, policy and practice at IIE.
‘Learning to work with international colleagues will be valuable experience for both the international students and the American students in their future careers, and will help develop talent that is needed by employers in the United States and in the students’ home countries.’
The increase has also helped strengthen the U.S. position as the number one destination for international students. The report shows the U.S. pulling ahead of its nearest competitor, Canada, with faster growth than both its northern neighbour and the U.K. Only Australia has grown faster over the last four years, albeit from a smaller base.
The study also shows the U.S. states which play host to the largest number of international secondary students. Among those enrolling for the high school diploma, California, New York and Massachusetts are the most popular destinations, while for exchange program students the 1-2-3 are Michigan, Texas and California.
But the report also contains signs that the boom may be coming to an end. While the number of international high school students rose by 12% over the four years to 2016, annual growth slowed to 1% in 2016, compared with 8% in 2013.
Whether this represents a temporary blip or an indication that the market is reaching its limit remains to be seen, but there is no doubt that a U.S. high school education is almost as sought-after as a degree from a U.S. university.
By Nick Morrison