Francisco Marmolejo. This month the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development released its annual statistical educational report, “Education at a Glance 2012: OECD Indicators.” It analyzes educational performance in the 34 market economies belonging to the OECD and has gradually included comparable data from nonmember countries like Brazil and Russia.
In recent years, the OECD’s analysis has included a section presenting trends in international enrollment in higher education, which, in a way, has become the most comprehensive data analysis of its kind in the world.
What is the OECD telling us about international student mobility around the world and, more specifically, in the United States?
There are more international students than ever.
First of all, the OECD confirms that the number of international higher-education students in the world has grown dramatically and, in fact, is much larger than the number predicted just a year ago. Based on its own data and data provided by Unesco, the OECD calculates that in 2010 there were 4.1 million international students in the world.
In reality the number is much larger—probably around 5 million—if we consider that the OECD doesn’t include students hosted in several countries, such as China, Malaysia, Mexico, and Egypt, which are important destinations. Also, reported data are only a snapshot of international enrollment for a specific date, which may leave out students participating in short-term programs or those unaffiliated with any institution in the host country. To place numbers in a comparative perspective, in 2000 there were only 2.1 million international students in the world, which means that in 10 years the number has almost doubled.
But mobility is largely for the elite. International study continues to be a privilege of the academic or economic elite and, in fact, its rate of growth has been less than the overall  rate of total enrollment in higher education in the world. If we consider that in 2010 there were about 177 million students enrolled in higher-education institutions worldwide, international students represent only a meager 2.3 percent. Even more, while total enrollment in higher education in the world grew a spectacular 70 percent since 2000, the share of international students only moved from 2.1 to 2.3 percent. Stated simply: The overwhelming majority of higher-education students in the world doesn’t study abroad. Period.
The United States is the largest recipient of worldwide international students.
International educators in the United States have reason to be happy because the number of international students choosing American higher-education institutions as their destination continues to grow, especially from China which doubled the number of students in the United States in the last 10 years. A triumphalist tone is commonly heard in the United States since it is, in fact, the premier destination worldwide. Numbers confirm such an optimistic picture: In 2010, America received 684,807 international students. This represents a spectacular growth of 44 percent in comparison with the 475,179 received in 2000, mostly from China, India, and South Korea. Given the financing of higher education in the United States, a larger number of international students represents an important influx of additional financial resources for institutions. Related data provided by Nafsa shows that in 2010-11, foreign students and their dependents contributed a not insignificant $20.2-billion to the U.S. economy.
But the share of the pie keeps shrinking.
This is no time for those in the States to rest on their laurels. Although America is the leading destination worldwide, its share of international students has been shrinking. While in 2000, the United States attracted 23 percent of students worldwide, 10 years later the number was reduced to 16.6 percent.
That decrease should serve as a wake-up call to any American institution that thinks that  the United States will always be the top destination of international students. In 10 years, who can predict what the data from the OECD and other sources will show?