Study Abroad in Asia: 2002-2011

Megan Lee

Megan is an international educator, traveler, and writer. She has led study abroad programs in China and the South Pacific.

Asia has gone from minor destination to major player on the study abroad stage. The number of students traveling to Asia grew 194% from 2002 to 2011 and now makes up 12% of global study. However, growth slowed and 2011 saw the first drop in students to the region since 2003. China has been the region's main destination, hosting 45% of students and driving much of the growth. The Subcontinent, SE Asia, and Korea all saw strong growth during the decade as well, but the trend was countered in 2011 by a significant downturn in Japan.

What’s been happening:
  • The inception of the 100k Strong Initiative in 2009 may have helped China may have stave off a decline felt by much of the world.
  • Strong, steady growth in India was interrupted in 2009 following the Mumbai bombings, but resumed the following year.
  • Japan saw a decline in students of 33% in 2011 following the Tohoku Earthquake. The 4,100 students were the fewest since 2004.
  • Strong growth in Thailand through 2007 was quieted by 2010, likely due to political unrest. South Korea and Vietnam seem to have avoided slowdowns in 2011 that affected much of the region.
  • In 2002, only China and Japan made the list of top 25 global destinations. Ten years later, South Korea and India joined.
Damien Tomkins, Asia Affairs Specialist at East-West Center

“I imagine that more U.S. students are going to study abroad in Asia as that region’s economic development continues. Already as highlighted on our initiative, U.S. students going to study in India over the past ten years has been on an upward trend. US Students Studying in India Show Strong Ten-Year Upward Growth.

In addition, President Obama’s 100,000 Initiative is intended to increase the number of U.S. studying in China as is Stephen A. Schwarzman recent announcement of the $300 billion Schwarzman Scholars program to encourage U.S. students to study in China. Other countries including Indonesia, Australia, Thailand, Singapore, Japan and South Korea could all potentially receive heightened focus for U.S. students studying abroad.

The strongest element to influencing students’ interest and ability to study in Asia is increased recognition amongst policy makers, universities, businesses and students of the importance of Asia. Once this is achieved, the opportunities are almost infinite: for business students Asia is the prime global locale for emerging markets; for language students there is the option to study a myriad of languages; for international and political science students there is the opportunity to study regional institutional building, peace and conflict prevention mechanisms, evolution of democracy; for humanities students there are anthropological studies, environmental studies, ancient and modern religions, the list goes on...”

Carl Jaramillo, CEO and Founder of Minds Abroad

“In all other regions of the world, when you talk about study abroad there are several contenders for the top spot. In Europe, there is the UK, France, Italy and Spain. In Latin America, there is Mexico, Argentina, and Costa Rica. However in Asia, there is really only one giant – China. The next largest countries, Japan and India, receives less than 30% as many students as China. In fact the rest of the Asia region combined really equals a similar number of study abroad students as China alone. So when we talk about the future of study abroad in Asia we’re really talking about the future of study abroad in China.

Actually one thing contributing to the growth in China over the last decade was an event that happened in the summer after the 2002/2003 school year concluded. At that time there an outbreak of SARS which hit China hard. This caused a drop in students in the 2002/2003 school year. But soon China bounced back. So much of the growth after 2003 (say from 2003 to 2006) wasn’t actually real growth. It was more over a recovery for the dramatic drop in students in 2003. Of course, the hurricane in Japan resulted in a major drop in students there that year, and political turmoil in Thailand a few years ago also resulted in a drop in students to Thailand.

The growth of China’s economy, and the subsequent media attention, has been fueling the growing of study abroad in China. Just as Chinese economy rises, the number of students studying abroad in China continues to rise. Japan has experience the opposite trend. Just as Japan’s economy has continued to struggle, enrollment in Japanese programs has grown much more slowly. India has been enjoying similar growth and media attention as China, though not to the degree of China. So India has been experiencing similar growth. Over the last ten years India has been among the fastest growing study abroad destinations (though from a very low base to begin with). If India can continue this kind of growth remains to be seen. India has structural problems which may limit the number of students who enroll. This includes poor infrastructure and extreme heat in the summer.”

Source: Institute of International Education. (2012). "Profile of U.S. Study Abroad Students, 2000/01-2010/11." Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange. Retrieved from

Report Methodology

Analysis and graphics for this report were created by Leaf and Square Consulting, a data-consulting firm helping companies get the most out of their data through advanced analytics and visualization. Learn more at

Data for this report came from the 2012 Institute of International Education Open Doors Report on International Education Exchange and the National Center for Education Statistics.

We tried to stay as true to the IIE report methodology as possible, but in some instances it was necessary to modify our approach or aggregate data in a different way. A few notes:

  • "Years" in our report refer to the academic year ending.
  • In general, for countries that changed names or political boundaries during the time period covered in the report, data from years prior to the changes were updated to match the most recent assignment from IIE for consistency.
  • Exceptions: Egypt was reassigned from Africa to the Middle East. Turkey is assigned to the Middle East for the global report and shown regionally in both the Europe and Middle East reports.
  • Students traveling to multiple destinations, a significant group, were excluded from our report due to a lack of detailed destination information.
  • Students classified as "Unspecified" to a particular region in the IIE report were spread proportionally to the countries in that region.
  • Data and reports may be downloaded as a Tableau Packaged Workbook by following the link underneath the charts. Further inquiries about the data or methodologies may be directed to [email protected]