Who studies abroad?

It’s winter in Madison. You’re burrowing under a blanket, cursing the tundra and scrolling through Instagram. You sigh as you thumb past a picture of your friend Mary shrieking with joy while sitting atop an elephant for the first time, and you cry slightly with jealously as you see another picture of your friend Tom lounging on the white beaches of Spain. It’s easy to see the glamour of studying abroad, and with each year there has been an increase in the number of students who partake in these travels. The following research details differences between U.S. students who study abroad and international students who study abroad in the U.S., as well as where these groups come from and where they go.

So how U.S. students and international students (who come to study in the U.S.) differ? To start this study, let’s investigate how majors compare between the two groups.

Youre an engineering major, and youre studying abroad?

Studying abroad and graduating on time do not always mix well, at least when it comes to certain studies at UW-Madison. I have heard many students complain that they didn’t get the chance to study abroad due time-limitations and the high-demands of their major to stay in the U.S. for the duration of their educational careers.

The Institute of International Education has Open Doors Data that details the majors of study abroad students since the early 2000s. To ensure consistency between the two groups, data was pulled from the 2011-2012 academic year since the years after included new majors for U.S. students that were not included in the data for international students.

The majors included in this study were:

  • social sciences
  • business and management
  • humanities
  • physical or life sciences
  • fine or applied arts
  • health sciences
  • foreign languages (or Intensive English for international students)
  • engineering
  • math and computer sciences
  • agriculture
  • other fields of study
  • undeclared majors

Although hundreds of other majors exist, these were the only categories of majors that Open Doors collected data for both groups. From those who studied abroad during the 2011-2012 academic year, U.S. students were most likely to be studying social sciences (22.4 percent), business (20.5 percent) and humanities (10.8 percent). On the other hand, those studying agriculture, math and computer sciences and education were least likely to be studying abroad.

With the exception of a high percentage of international students studying business and management (21.8 percent), the fields of international students varied greatly from U.S. students who study abroad. International students were more likely to study engineering (18.8 percent) and math and computer science (9.5 percent) in the U.S., which were much less prevalent categories for U.S. students. After comparing these two charts, it is clear international students travel more for STEM-related studies, while U.S. students more often study abroad with liberal arts majors.

To delve further into which international students in particular are studying these majors, the graph below shows which majors are most prevalent per country. It’s interesting that 58 percent of Iran’s students who study abroad in the U.S. are studying engineering, but yet Iran sends over the least amount of students in the business and management major (which is the most popular major for international students) at 4 percent.

The high discrepancy in majors between these two groups of students could suggest the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields in the U.S. are strong, but it is unclear why international students come here for this education. The U.S. has highly-regarded STEM research institutions, but according to U.S. News, China is home to three of the best engineering universities in the world, so this data needs to be investigated further.

Do all international students come from China?

During my time as a student at UW-Madison, I’ve noticed that I am less likely to come across a student who is studying abroad from England than China.  Where are these students coming from?

According to Open Doors Data, it is apparent China was the top place of origin with 304,040 students coming to study in the U.S. during the 2014-2015 academic year. Following China was India with 132,888 students, South Korea with 63,710 students, Saudi Arabia with 59,945 students and Canada 27,240 students. Green signifies a higher population, while shades of red mean a lower amount of students come from that country to study in the U.S.

China and India are the two most populous countries in the world, so it seemed too obvious that these countries would be the two most popular places of origin of international students in the U.S. I used data from Statistic Times to find the amount of U.S. international students per capita in order to have a more accurate representation of what portion of the country’s population comes to the U.S to study here. These results produced a very large range of values that were very high orders of magnitude, so it was necessary to use the log scale in order to better visualize the data. For those unfamiliar with this method, the log scale allows for a nonlinear distribution of the data points, and this enables the audience to discern the study abroad patterns from the visual map. Without this method, there is too large of a range of values and the visualization does not work.

Interestingly enough, the country of Niue has the highest percentage of their population study abroad in the U.S., and this is followed by many countries in Central America  such as Bermuda, the Bahamas, the British Virgin Islands, St. Kitts and Nevis and the Cayman Islands. However, these countries are all teeny, so the per capita may produce a distorted representation.

South Korea is sixth according to this data, which shows this country truly does send a large chunk of its residents to study abroad in the U.S., considering they are the third most popular country to study abroad in the U.S. according to student size. However, Saudi Arabia falls in the number 11 spot, and China and India don’t even make the top forty for international students according to per capita. Although the biggest chunk of our international students are Chinese, a large majority of their population does not come here to pursue their education.

Before I moved on to research where U.S. students studied abroad, I wanted to learn specifically where in the U.S. international students were studying. According to the Open Doors Data, 4.8 percent of all students studying in the U.S. are international. During the 2013-2014 academic year, the most popular institution for international students was Harvard University, which hosted 4,456 students. Overall, California was the most popular state to study in for the U.S. followed by Massachusetts, Illinois and New York.

Why do these students study in these places? Is there a correlation between rankings of U.S. colleges and international student destinations?

To investigate this, I plotted the correlation between the top 40 study abroad destinations for international students and how these colleges ranked in the U.S. according to the U.S. News Report & World Report Educational Rankings. Interestingly, Princeton is the number one rated university in the U.S., however it does not make the top forty destinations for international students according to Open Doors Data.

However, there are some correlations—Harvard is the the second-highest rated university in the country, and it has the highest number of international students. But, generally there doesn’t seem to be a strong correlation between ranking and the amount of international students, which could suggest international students don’t always attend U.S. students because of their prestige. Obviously university size may come into play here, but Harvard has a relatively small population of 21,000 students (including undergraduate, graduate and professional students) and it has the highest enrollment of international students (4,456). In comparison, UW-Madison has more than double the amount of students (43,193) and half Harvard’s enrollment of international students (2,033). From this data, it is unclear why international studies study where they do.

Where do the U.S. students go?

Six countries out of the top ten most popular study abroad destinations are in Europe. The U.K. takes the number one spot with 36,210 studying abroad there during the 2012-2013 academic year, and this is followed by Italy at 29,848 students, Spain at 26,281 students, 17,210 students and China at 14,413 students. It is apparent that the continent of Africa and the Middle Eastern region seem to be unpopular destinations, while Western Europe is on an uptick.

This seemed significant. After a brief search on UW-Madison’s IAP study abroad website, there seemed to be a correlation between countries with little populations of U.S. students and the programs offered there. The content of Africa, which is the second largest of the seven continents following Asia, had only 20 study abroad programs, and the Middle East only offered 12 programs through UW-Madison. On the other hand, Europe had a selection of 83 programs, even though it is the second smallest continent following Australia, which had 14 programs. So although places such as North Africa and the Middle East have little populations of U.S. students, it could be that there are not many programs offered in those countries yet, so students have less opportunities to study in these countries.

To investigate further, I created a visualization that shows which study abroad destinations are growing or declining in popularity for U.S. students. With this visualization, the red signifies a decrease in students, the brown signifies relatively little or no change and the green depicts an increase in students.

Interestingly enough, the regions which typically do not host U.S. students seem to be growing in popularity. There are several countries in Africa which have grown in popularity during the 2012-2013 academic year, with Lesotho having the highest percentage increase at 1033 percent. However, Lesotho still has a little amount of students studying there, so it’s important to keep this in mind. Several countries in the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia reflect increases in popularity as well. Note that zero of the top ten study abroad destinations are even near the top fifty countries whose study abroad populations are increasing, so although they’re popular now, students may be shifting their study abroad preferences to other areas of the globe. From this data, it is clear that there is a shift in where U.S. students are choosing to go for their study abroad experience.


It’s obvious that destinations and majors while studying abroad is different for every country. Studying the majors of those who study abroad give us clues about the quality of both the home countries’ and the destination countries’ specific programs, the value that home country has for that program and an overall feel for which type of people feel they need to study in a foreign country. Before studying this data, I thought the foreign languages major would be higher up on the list for both groups of students since the best way to learn a language is to live in its native country. However, it proved to be an average major, which may show that students are now learning new subjects in foreign languages such as engineering and science, and students may be going abroad to experience culture rather than language. Looking at the majors of students alone is in inconclusive—this study could be expanded on by conducting a worldwide survey that would ask the specific reasons why students go abroad.

In regards to international students specifically, China sends the most amount of students to the U.S., however many other countries send their students here while looking at the origin of international students per capita. There is a wide range of international cultures studying abroad in the U.S., and it would be intriguing to discover what effects international students have had on the U.S. student culture, specifically in the most popular states of California, Massachusetts and Illinois.

Lastly, U.S. students seem to be shifting their preference for study abroad destinations. Although the trend has been for students to go to Western Europe, looking at the map of “Percent Change of U.S. Study Abroad Destinations” gives some insight on which countries are becoming more in-demand for today’s study abroad generations. This may reflect the implementation of new programs across the globe throughout the years, which gives students better access to other parts of the world beyond typical European countries. Other implications may be that students are looking for cultures that are highly dissimilar from their own in the U.S. Again, a survey would be ideal for learning this psychographic data.


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