Schools with the Highest Foreign Student Populations

In the light of pro-Hamas protests, does ICE have the capacity to monitor such large numbers?

By Jon Feere on April 25, 2024

As protests erupt on college campuses over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, many commentators have raised the question of whether some of the associated harassment and violence is coming from foreign students. While the pro-Hamas protests appear to be made up of a combination of U.S. students, foreign students, and even some college administrators, the schools where these protests are taking place do make up some of the top foreign-student-heavy campuses. The growth of the foreign student population is a phenomenon that raises a number of issues, particularly with numerous schools deciding to dedicate an increasingly larger percentage of their enrollment to foreign students each year, perhaps driven by the ability to charge foreign students higher tuition. As admissions become increasingly competitive, and as concerns about America’s standing in the world grow, Congress should consider whether it would make sense to limit the number of foreign students that can be enrolled at America’s educational institutions, in total numbers and/or as a percentage of any institution’s overall enrollment.

Oversight of the foreign student population is conducted by Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), part of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which manages the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). Through SEVIS, the agency is tasked with tracking and monitoring schools, exchange visitor programs, and foreign students on F and M visas. Detailed data on foreign students, schools certified by ICE to enroll foreign students, and the Optional Practical Training program is available online. Regulations on foreign students and educational institutions that enroll them are significant, and HSI is tasked with ensuring compliance with them by making arrests of foreign students and decertifying institutions from enrolling foreign students if they run afoul of the law.

Over the last 10 years, the list of the five college campuses with the highest number of foreign students has fluctuated a bit year to year, but the schools on the list have been Columbia University, New York University, Northeastern University, the University of Southern California, and the University of Illinois. In 2022, Illinois was bumped to sixth on the list as Arizona State University took the fifth position. The most recent DHS data set for the top 500 academic schools, listed by total number of foreign students, is available here and below.

While these schools have enrolled a large number of foreign students, perhaps more significant is the fact that they have also chosen to shift the total campus population to favor enrollment of foreign students over U.S. students, with some campuses dedicating more than half of their available seats to foreign students. At a certain point, Congress must ask whether this is in the national interest and DHS must ask whether it has the capacity to oversee and manage such a large foreign student population.

Columbia University. According to the latest DHS data available, in 2022 there were 20,347 foreign students enrolled at Columbia University. The university’s website has the latest data for 2023, and puts the number at 20,321 foreign students. Columbia also lists the population by country of origin; almost half of the foreign students come from China, with 9,961 enrolled students, while Indian students account for 2,357 of the population, and Canadian students come in third with 751 enrolled foreign students.

A data table on the Columbia website notes that the university has enrolled a total of 36,649 students. Accordingly, this means approximately 55 percent of students at Columbia University were foreign students as of 2022.

Columbia has increased its foreign student population in recent years. In 2017, there were 17,202 foreign students enrolled on its campus, and by 2022 that population had gone up to 20,347 foreign students — an 18 percent increase.

It should be noted that of the more than 20,000 foreign students at Columbia University, the school reports that a total of 6,483 of them are engaged in Optional Practical Training (OPT). This is a controversial DHS-created program that allows foreign students to work in their field of study for one or three years beyond graduation. In other words, that population is not studying on campus, but is employed at some worksite (which may or may not be a campus lab, for example). Nevertheless, foreign students remain enrolled in the school while they are participating in OPT. Put differently, if looking solely at foreign students studying on Columbia’s campus, the percentage of the total student body that is made up of foreign students is approximately 38 percent (13,838 of 36,649).

Like many universities, Columbia has chosen to shift its student population to favor foreign students in recent years, significantly increasing the percentage of foreign students as a percentage of its total enrollment. According to Columbia’s own data, in 2011 a total of 25 percent of its student population was made up of foreign students; by 2021, Columbia had significantly shifted enrollment, resulting in 37 percent of its student population being foreign students. The decision of college campuses to dedicate an ever-growing percentage of finite seats to foreign students, rather than American students, should be evaluated by Congress. There is nothing stopping taxpayer-subsidized universities from giving the overwhelming majority of their seats each fall to foreign students.

New York University. The New York University website highlights that the university enrolls “more than 50,000 students” and also states that it “is home to the highest number of international students in the United States with over 21,000 international students” — meaning that approximately 42 percent of NYU’s campus is made up of foreign students. DHS data for 2022 puts NYU at the top of its foreign student records list with 21,453 active foreign student records that year. However, that same ICE data set includes a second entry for NYU with 6,763 active foreign student records. This might be an error, where the second number was already included in the larger number, or it may mean that there are actually 28,216 foreign students at NYU; if that’s the correct number, it would mean that approximately 56 percent of NYU students are foreign students. Perhaps HSI can provide some clarity and corrections in the forthcoming 2023 data.

NYU has increased its foreign student population in recent years. In 2017, there were 17,280 foreign students enrolled on its campus, and by 2022 that population had gone up to 21,453 foreign students — a 24 percent increase.

It should be noted that the percentage of foreign students varies amongst different parts of a college’s fields of study. For example, the New York Times reported in 2017 that a whopping 80 percent of NYU’s graduate students in the Tandon School of Engineering are foreign students. The Tandon School is a consolidation of NYU’s science, technology, engineering, and math programs.

On one webpage of the NYU website, it’s noted that “22.2% of NYU students come from outside the U.S.”, but it’s likely that the number is only a measurement of the university’s undergraduate campus. It may also include students who were born overseas, but who have been living in the United States as permanent residents or naturalized citizens and would not be counted in the foreign student records.

Northeastern University. According to the latest DHS data available, in 2022 there were 21,385 foreign students enrolled at Northeastern University, which has also recently seen pro-Palestinian protests and conflict. The university reported in 2022 that it had enrolled a total of 36,806 students. This means that over 58 percent of students at Northeastern University were foreign students as of 2022.

Northeastern has increased its foreign student population in recent years. In 2017, there were 16,658 foreign students enrolled on its campus, and by 2022 that population had gone up to 21,385 foreign students — a dramatic 28 percent increase.

University of Southern California. According to the latest DHS data available, in 2022 there were 18,437 foreign students enrolled at the University of Southern California (USC). The school reported that there was a total of 49,500 students enrolled that year, meaning 37 percent of the student body was made up of foreign students as of 2022.

The university has seen a number of protests, including one where “pro-Palestinian students and their supporters began an occupation” of USC’s Alumni Park. Campus police were tasked with breaking up the protests and clearing out the encampment because the university plans to hold its commencement ceremony in Alumni Park in weeks. USC’s commencement has been in the news on account of the school canceling its plans for a graduation speech by this year’s valedictorian, Asna Tabassum, after complaints about her social media posts in support of Palestinians and reported threats to the commencement.

University of Illinois. According to the latest DHS data available, in 2022 there were 15,231 foreign students enrolled at the University of Illinois. There were a total of 55,375 students enrolled at the University of Illinois in 2022, meaning that approximately 28 percent of the student body was made up of foreign students as of 2022.

Like many schools that are actively working to increase the percentage of students on their campuses that are foreign students, the University of Illinois works to recruit foreign students through outreach in foreign countries. For example, the University of Illinois touts its Shanghai Office, which, among other things, “identifies opportunities to recruit students from China”. The University of Illinois also proudly presents an Interactive Map of Global Engagement that allows users to see all of the cooperative agreements, memorandums of understanding, and other relationships the university has with foreign schools and companies around the world; for example, it has over 80 with Chinese institutions, 29 with France, and four with Israel. It has four strategic partnerships, one with Zhejiang University in China, one with National Taiwan University in Taiwan, one with Kyushu University in Japan, and one with University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom.

Arizona State University. According to the latest DHS data available, in 2022 there were 15,855 foreign students enrolled at Arizona State University (ASU). There were a total of 142,616 students enrolled at ASU in 2022, meaning that 11 percent of the student body was made up of foreign students in 2022.

Expulsions and Online Courses. Two sections of DHS’s foreign student regulations have become relevant to recent events on some campuses, one relating to suspensions after protesting students violated campus policies, and the other related to online courses, as some schools switched to remote learning in an attempt to reduce conflict on campus.

As to suspensions, amid a disruptive protest on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in November, MIT president Sally Kornbluth announced that it was “conducted in defiance” of MIT’s policies and raised “serious concerns” about violence and that protestors who refused to leave a central lobby “would be subject to suspension”. Despite some students continuing to ignore Kornbluth’s directions and threat of suspension, she and her colleagues determined that some of the protestors were foreign students and decided against suspending them, explaining that she “heard serious concerns about collateral consequences for the students, such as visa issues” and decided “that the students who remained after the deadline will be suspended from non-academic campus activities”. She explained that a non-academic suspension means that the “students will remain enrolled at MIT and will be able to attend academic classes and labs.”

DHS regulations require that schools that have been certified by DHS to enroll foreign students report to SEVIS any change in a student’s records, including whether the student has been suspended, dismissed, placed on probation, or withdrawn from school. Schools must report any student “who has failed to maintain status or complete his or her program”, and also report any “disciplinary action taken by the school against the student as a result of the student being convicted of a crime” — this and other information (like a student’s address) allows DHS to keep track of foreign students and ensure they are in the United States for the purpose for which they were granted entry.

The issue with MIT is that it effectively chose to ignore its own policies in order to accommodate foreign students, so as not to implicate DHS regulations. By not following its own policies, MIT effectively did an end-run around federal policies related to foreign students. This raises a serious question of whether DHS should continue to certify MIT to have a foreign student program. How many other important regulatory requirements can a school effectively ignore before it becomes a problem for DHS and national security? As I told one reporter, “It might be advisable for school administrators to hold foreign students accountable rather than risk losing their foreign student program altogether.”

As to online courses, a number of campuses experiencing violent pro-Hamas protests have announced that they are shifting courses from the classroom to the internet to reduce conflict. But DHS regulations limit the number of online courses foreign students can take, the rationale being that DHS needs to know where foreign students are located, should an inquiry or an arrest be necessary. Specifically, the regulation reads, “For F-1 students enrolled in classes for credit or classroom hours, no more than the equivalent of one class or three credits per session, term, semester, trimester, or quarter may be counted toward the full course of study requirement if the class is taken on-line or through distance education and does not require the student’s physical attendance for classes, examination or other purposes integral to completion of the class.” It also explains that if a foreign student’s course of study “is in a language study program, no on-line or distance education classes may be considered to count toward a student’s full course of study requirement.”

Schools certified to enroll foreign students should reach out to DHS before declaring that courses are being shifted to online courses, because it may lead to foreign students being in violation of federal regulations.