A Brief Look at International Student Mobility

This post is brought to you by our sister company, The Cambridge Institute of International Education.


Over the past decade, American private schools have witnessed firsthand the considerable increase in the number of international students who are both interested in, and able to, spend their high school years abroad. With such a sizeable and rapidly growing population of international secondary students, it is crucial for American schools with international programs to understand the trends that drive international students to their schools’ doorsteps.

This post will focus on the way country of origin impacts a student’s decisions for study abroad options and preferences.

The breakdown of a high school’s international student body is heavily influenced by socioeconomic factors. Typically, the amount an international student is willing to invest in a U.S. education is dependent on the student’s relative wealth and their perception of the value an American degree provides. As you would expect, international students in the U.S. tend to come from wealthier countries that highly value an American degree.

China and South Korea

It is no surprise that Chinese and South Korean students make up 44% of the international secondary student population. China and Korea have experienced exponential economic growth in the past twenty years and the two cultures place immense value on education. The stark realities plaguing both countries’ education systems include difficulty of access for most individuals to the best domestic institutions and an enormous gap between first and second tier schools in terms of resources, reputation and quality of teaching. The resulting desire for a better education, combined with increasing wealth and the prestige of a western diploma, has driven Chinese and Korean students to study in the United States in great numbers.


Most European countries consistently perform well on international education rankings, making the need for quality education a less likely reason for students to study abroad. Additionally, with the economies of many European countries in decline, Europeans are hesitant to spend money on something they get for free domestically. For European secondary students who can afford to study abroad, studies show they mostly opt for short-term exchanges, which suggests secondary European students are more interested in experiencing the cultural aspect of study abroad. Altogether, European students make up 28% of the secondary international student pool in the United States. Due to the interconnected nature of European countries economies, many more students will choose to study in other European countries (with the UK being the obvious choice for those seeking a degree from an English-language institution).

Latin America

Students from Latin America currently make up roughly 10% of the secondary international student body, with 70% of students coming from two emerging economies: Brazil and Mexico. The primary impediment of Latin American students seeking to study abroad is cost. Despite the growing economy, which is giving rise to a fledgling middle-class, growth in Latin America is unsteady and crippled by weak infrastructure. Only the immensely wealthy, and there are few of them, can afford the hefty cost of gaining a diploma, with a larger percentage studying in short-term programs throughout the school year.

China, South Korea, Europe and Latin America make up the majority of the secondary international student pool in America. As your school expands its international recruitment efforts and seeks to diversify its international student body, it is important to keep in mind the financial constraints of students from certain countries. In order to maximize your school’s appeal, recruitment efforts should be appropriately adapted to suit your target audience.