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More International Students Want U.S. High School Diplomas, Not Just Exchanges

Increasingly, students from other countries who are coming to the United States for high school want to earn diplomas, not just participate in a short-term exchange programs.

New research finds most of the students drawn to U.S. high schools are from Asia and the vast majority (95 percent) attend private high schools because of visa policies that place limits on going to public schools.

While the Institute of International Education has long tracked trends among international college students, on July 8 it came out with its first report focused on secondary students. It found that the number of international students enrolled directly in U.S. high schools has tripled from 2004 to 2013 from 15,882 to 49,030 at the same time those participating in exchange programs rose by only 15 percent from 25,815 to 29,698.

"We had increasingly heard from the field that were was a rise in the number of international students coming to U.S. high schools, yet not much was known about who these students were, where they were from, or their motivations for coming," said Rajika Bhadari, IIE's deputy vice president for research and evaluation, in a phone interview.

The Washington-based IIE learned that international students were not only attending private boarding schools, but there was a growth in admission at private day schools, where often arrangements were made for local families to host these students or a boarding component was being added, said Christine Farrugia, the author of the report.

The trend is driven, in large part, by students from China coming to the United States in hopes of leveraging the experience to get them into American colleges and universities, IIE reports.  The perception is that they will get a high-quality education, have access to more Advanced Placement courses, improve their English skills, and set themselves apart in the college admissions process, said Farrugia.

What do more American-educated students mean for the applicant pool?

Bhandari said many of these international students would have applied anyway, but are doing it from U.S.-based schools instead of their home countries. "It's not providing more competition for domestic students," she said. "It's more of an issue for colleges trying to recruit international students to shift their strategies at home to look for these students."

There were 73,019 students studying at American high schools in the fall of 2013, with 48,632 (67 percent) enrolled directly in programs to get a full diploma, while the other 33 percent were in cultural exchange programs. The largest group of students are from Asia (44 percent), primarily China and South Korea, IIE found. Those on exchange programs are more often from European countries (66 percent).

International students seeking high school diplomas in the United States are typically attending private (independent or religiously affiliated) schools on the East or West coasts, with the largest concentration in California (18 percent) and New York (8 percent).

Compared to Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia, the United States hosts a much larger number of secondary and postsecondary students from abroad, the IIE report said.

Private schools are welcoming these international students as they try to fill spots and meet their budgets, notes IIE officials. Although public colleges charge more for out-of-state students, tuition is not typically higher for non-Americans at private high schools.

This latest research on international high school students mirrors what is happening at the college level.

The Institute's most recent Open Doors report on college students found 55,000 more international students were enrolled in U.S. higher education in the academic year 2012-13, compared to 2011-12, with most of the growth driven by China and Saudi Arabia. It was the seventh consecutive year that IEE found growth in the total number of international postsecondary students in this country.

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