Students talking among themselves in classroom (Courtesy of Nikita Ankem)
Engineering graduate students at Pennsylvania State University. Many are international, including Devayani Borse of India (wearing glasses). (Courtesy photo)

The number of international students at U.S. colleges and universities topped 1 million for the first time, paced by a surge of graduate students in sciences, engineering and math from India.

China still sends the most students — 328,500 or nearly a third — but enrollments from India climbed 25 percent to almost 166,000 in 2015–2016.

Nikita Ankem, 23, of Nagpur, India, is pursuing a master’s in industrial engineering at Pennsylvania State University. She said a Penn State degree will be appreciated when she’s looking for a job back home.

“In India, most of the education is theoretical. We’re very good in mathematics,” says Ankem, web coordinator for the Indian Graduate Student Association at Penn State. “Here you learn how to apply it all with lots of case studies, problem solving and team projects.”

Saudi Arabia moved slightly ahead of South Korea to third; each sends roughly 61,000. Canada is fifth with 29,000.

The figures come from Open Doors 2016, the annual census conducted by the Institute of International Education in partnership with the State Department. Its release is a highlight of International Education Week, marked with fairs and festivals at hundreds of U.S. campuses and abroad.

Infographic showing growing number of international students in U.S. and their areas of study (Open Doors 2016, Institute of International Education)
(Open Doors 2016, Institute of International Education)

The ranks of international students climbed by almost a half million over the past decade. Overall U.S. enrollment now stands at 20.3 million. No other country draws so many college students from outside its own borders.

More than half pursue degrees in engineering, business, math and computer science. Graduates with degrees in science, technology, engineering and math can work for 29 months in the U.S. before returning home. Others get 12 months.

“We need to encourage youth in all countries to seek out exchange opportunities beyond their borders,” says Evan Ryan, who heads the bureau in charge of the State Department’s exchange programs. “We see international education as an essential component in making communities and the world safer and more tolerant.”

More than 250 U.S. universities each host more than 1,000 international students, led by New York University (15,500) and the University of Southern California (13,300).

China, India, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Taiwan, Iran, the United Kingdom, Nepal, Nigeria, Kuwait, France, Indonesia, Venezuela, Malaysia, Colombia and Spain all sent more students last year.

Institute president Allan Goodman said international students “value the quality, diversity and strong reputation of U.S. institutions.” At the same time, he said, they “teach us a lot about the world we share. The more we can open doors to other cultures … the better off our country and our world will be.”