Observation: According to OECD stats, the number of international students at US higher education institutions is the highest in the world and still rising (see also Wikipedia here and a report here).

Question: What are the main factors underpinning the observation above?

I am interested in (partial) answers pointing to studies, or sources of statistical information on the topic, not solely opinions.

This is a reformulation of this question

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    According to wes.org/educators/pdf/StudentMobility.pdf, if you aggregate the number of students going to UK, Germany and France, you get about 840.000 foreign students, for a global population of only 209M, against only 564.000 foreign students for 315M in the US. I don't really see how that puts the US as the highest in the world, so I basically challenge your observation, which why I downvoted the question (the ratio are also better for UK, Germany and France taken individually).
    – user102
    Commented Jan 25, 2013 at 23:17
  • 1
    Indeed, the rates are not that good, also, it would be interesting to know how many higher education institutions exist in other countries. Commented Jan 26, 2013 at 3:48
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    “the number of international students at US higher education institutions is the highest in the world” — it's much larger than most of the other Western countries! Charles' argument is good, although it is only an estimation: if you aggregate Europe to compare it with the US (a good idea), you also need to remove intra-European fluxes, which you cannot do from the above-linked statistics. Otherwise, you overestimate Europe's “foreign” students…
    – F'x
    Commented Jan 26, 2013 at 15:31
  • 1
    @CharlesMorisset: indeed an interesting observation, however I suspect the number is hugely inflated by intra-EU mobility. From the OECD stats, it should be possible to clean up the numbers, as they state how many students from which countries are where. If I'll get some time, I'll try to process the numbers.
    – walkmanyi
    Commented Jan 26, 2013 at 19:01
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    According to this document media.enseignementsup-recherche.gouv.fr/file/2010/61/1/… (in French, sorry), over 266.400 foreign students in France, only 22% come from Europe, with 18% from the EU. That leaves 207.000 foreign students out of Europe. France ratio: 0.0032, US ratio, 0.0018. Compare the country size, France is almost twice as attractive as the US.
    – user102
    Commented Jan 26, 2013 at 19:37

3 Answers 3



Firstly, the answer will tackle the question's false assumption that the US is the most attractive destination for international students. Secondly, I will cite some of the factors making a country/region's education system attractive to international students. Finally, to tackle some of the comments, I will present a chart showing number of international students per capita in selected countries.

USA is not the most attractive destination for international students

According to the OECD Factbook 2011-2012: Economic, Environmental and Social Statistics, the number one destination of foreign students among OECD countries is Europe followed by Northern American region:

European countries in the OECD were the destination for 38% of foreign students in 2009 followed by North American countries (23%). Despite the strong increase in absolute numbers, these proportions have remained stable during the last decade.

To put the numbers above to global perspective, observe also that

Foreign students enrolled in G20 countries account for 83% of total foreign students, and students in the OECD area represent 77% of the total foreign students enrolled worldwide.

Factors driving attractiveness of higher education in OECD countries

Again, according to the same source (emphasis added):

Language as well as cultural considerations, quality of programmes, geographic proximity and similarity of education systems are determining factors driving student mobility. The destinations of international students highlight the attractiveness of specific education systems, whether because of their academic reputation or because of subsequent immigration opportunities.

Commenters to the question cite the ratio of international students per capita as an indicator of attractiveness of education system for foreign students. While I do not see any direct correlation between attractiveness of an educational system and the ratio of foreign students per capita (countries can be arbitrarily protective, or non-protective w.r.t. their own citizens), I prepared the following chart from the OECD data (relevant to year 2009): foreign students per capita - OECD countries, 2009

The chart was constructed by merging data from the OECD.Stat with OECD countries population data from OECD population 2009 as published in the corresponding section of the OECD Factbook 2001-2012. The computation is done on non-citizen students column for the year 2009, except for United States it is the number of non-resident students (due to lack of a non-citizen students datapoint).

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    Hi walmanyi, I appreciate your effort to rework the original question into a more amenable form. I still have doubts about the usefulness of the question: the first part of your answer means that the question is based on incorrect facts, and the second part answers that the main factors driving “popularity” are “academic reputation” and “immigration opportunities”. I'm not sure what we've learnt by saying that! And this comment doesn't mean to disparage your answer, but rather that I still don't think this question is a good fit for the Q&A format. It's just too broad.
    – F'x
    Commented Jan 26, 2013 at 22:49
  • @F'x: incorrectness of the assumption: so what should we do with questions which are based on incorrect assumptions which are however not easy to see through? Should we delete them, or keep them with an answer which debunks a myth? As for the second part of the answer, consider that as a partial answer only, a cite from a somewhat(?) authoritative source. It should at least give a hint that there exists some body of research on the topic.
    – walkmanyi
    Commented Jan 26, 2013 at 22:57
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    the “incorrect assumption” part is not the problem (at least not for me), I'd be happy to let such questions live… but the question itself should be answerable. But the document you linked to and user4231’s quotes all end up saying the same trivial thing: situations depend all, but people who move do it because they think they will be better of.
    – F'x
    Commented Jan 26, 2013 at 23:03
  • I do agree with F'x, people do it because they think they will be better off. The issue itself is subjective, I just don't know how anybody can have an objective answer.
    – Nobody
    Commented Jan 27, 2013 at 3:44

Your question is interesting me so I did an hour or so of internet search for academic studies of the reasons behind brain drain in recent years. I will give here some results which I found. It is not a total answer to your question and I do not think anybody can completely answer your question because it is a very complex and highly studied issue. Reasons (driving factors) depend on each individual. Paper 2 makes useful distinction between PULL and PUSH factors and gives a list of useful examples of the two.

-- Brain Circulation Replacing Brain Drain at Science CareersBlog:

"Brain circulation," meeting attendees noted in a consensus statement issued 6 September, is the "mutli-directional flow of talents, education and research that benefit multiple countries and regions and the advancement of global knowledge." In an era when many scientists and scholars move between several countries to pursue training and research, the statement suggests, "brain circulation" often more accurately describes international mobility than "brain drain," which implies a unidirectional flow that only benefits certain countries.

This is in agreement with Charles comment. Maybe the situation is not so disymmetric than it used to be.

-- Analysis and Assessment of the “Brain Drain” Phenomenon and its Effects on Caribbean Countries at FLORIDA ATLANTIC COMPARATIVE STUDIES JOURNAL:

In order to understand how the “Brain Drain” happens, we must spend some time discussing migration and the reasons people leave their home countries in the first place. The reasons many Caribbean natives go abroad and fail to return home fall within two categories often referred to as pull and push factors. Push factors are circumstances or events in the home countries that result in persons leaving. Examples of push factors are the structural adjustment programs enforced by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank on developing countries that increased unemployment and reduced government funding on social programs in these countries which then led to increased migration. Pull factors are the incentives in the receiving countries that encourage persons to seek employment opportunities there. Examples of pull factors are the immigration incentive policies of the receiving countries that tend to attract higher educated, skilled and trained personnel. For example, the H-1B visa system in the U.S. is often used as a stepping stone by immigrants who want to acquire employment-based permanent residence there. The current immigration policy in the U.S. enables those applying for the H-1B visa to have the dual intent of attaining temporary work status but intending to apply for permanent residency (Kapur and McHale 2005). Other developed countries have similar immigration policies that continue to attract highly skilled workers from developing countries. Currently in Australia, employers of immigrants are not required to prove that domestic workers will be adversely affected by the employment of foreign employees, in fact, all they need to show is that employing the immigrant will be, in some manner, beneficial to Australia (Kapur and McHale 2005).

-- China's brain drain is a report on a Gallup survey:

This article argues that education, employment and family are the main reasons behind China’s brain drain. The article also provides useful statistics concerning the issue.

-- Thai Diasporas and Livelihood Strategies in Thai Society here:

This article uses traditional definitions of Diaspora to examine the phenomenon of the brain drain in Thailand. It also considers the reasons for emigrating to another country in terms of personal livelihood

(last few examples are taken from here: http://www-cs-faculty.stanford.edu/~eroberts/cs181/projects/2010-11/BrainDrain/)


Not a full-fledged answer, but there was a post (by Marginal Revolution) pointing to a paper [1] that reports alumni control of the Board of Trustees as a key factor:

All this is made possible by a model that transfers control to those who value it most, that is the alumni, who then drive competition for students, faculty, facilities, research, programs, global ties, sports coaches and rankings. Conversely, they also provide funds and guidance to maintain uniform excellence in all these pursuits. This maximizes the value of the degree or the “sheepskin” that the alumni are figuratively cloaked in for the rest of their lives.

[1] “Why is Harvard #1? Governance and the Dominance of US Universities” – Working Paper 2012, Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad.

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