U.S. Remains Most Popular Country Among International Students — Barely

Anti-immigration actions and rhetoric. Continued racial and socioeconomic inequalities. An out-of-control pandemic. Despite a seemingly growing list of intractable crises, the U.S. remains the most popular destination for international business students.


According to a study of 1,442 respondents from 50 countries, 68% of respondents said they’d consider international study in the U.S. — exactly 1 percentage point higher than the UK at 67%.

“Given the decisions of the Trump administration to restrict visas for international students and the spread of COVID-19 in the USA, such large numbers considering study there may appear to be something of a surprise,” the report says. “However, those considering a one-year master’s or those who have been planning to study in the USA for some time may not be daunted by short-term political issues or may believe they can be overcome.”


The “Business of Branding” study, which was conducted by consulting firm CarringtonCrisp and the EFMD management development network, has been conducted annually for more than a decade. Last year, just 50% of respondents listed the U.S. as a country considered for international study, which was down from 62% in 2018 and 67% in 2017.

That means that in 2020, the U.S. is getting back to pre-Trump status as a destination for the world’s top graduate business education talent.

“It may be that international students anticipate a (President Donald) Trump loss in November and a return to more stable policies for international students,” study author Andrew Crisp said in a prepared release. “It is possible that there is a perception that short-term issues — whether political or health-related — which may have put international students off, could be coming to an end.”

Following the U.S. and the UK as top destinations is Canada, which 48% of respondents listed as a country of interest for international study. Singapore (40%) and Australia (40%) followed next.

From the Business of Branding study


The main reason why the U.S. remains a popular choice among international students? A strong reputation among its many business schools outweighs its many current social and political issues. Respondents were asked to rank three considerations when thinking about studying abroad and the most popular consideration — ranked first by nearly 40% of respondents — is the “reputation of an individual business school.” Almost 70% of respondents ranked the reputation of a business school in their top-three — also more than any other consideration.

From the Branding of Business study

The reputation of a country for business education, the cost of study, and the opportunity to work in the country after graduation were the other three most popular considerations among respondents when looking for study abroad options. “While the choice of where to study is undoubtedly impacted by geopolitical events and perceptions of the pandemic in certain countries, there are other issues as well,” the report says. “Asked what was most important if they were to consider study abroad, the top choice was the reputation of an individual business school followed by reputation of a country for business education, cost of study and opportunity to work in a country after graduation.”

More than 80% of respondents said they “definitely agree” that the U.S. has a quality range of universities and business schools — more than any other country. Perhaps more impressive, not a single respondent disagreed that the U.S. has quality universities and business schools. Just under 80% of respondents said they “definitely agree” that the UK has the same quality range of business schools and universities.

“The U.S. has always had well-renowned universities and business schools,” Crisp said in the study’s press release. “To some extent, this reputation cancels out any negative perceptions of studying in the US, continuing to attract international students.”

From the Branding of Business study

However, almost 70% of respondents said they definitely agree the U.S. is an expensive place to study. The rate was still lower than the UK received, with nearly 80% of respondents definitely agreeing the UK is an expensive place to study. Nearly half of the respondents definitely agreed the U.S. has a strong and dynamic economy. That rate was slightly lower for the UK which had about 45% of respondents definitely agree it has a dynamic economy.

“One of the reasons that the USA and UK also remain popular is the perception among respondents that both countries are considered to have a good range of quality universities/business schools,” the study explains. “While Germany is identified as the sixth most attractive country for international study, its universities and business schools are less widely known, recognized by only 71% of respondents compared with 97% for the USA and 94% for the UK.”

From the Business of Branding study


The study also broke down results based on the gender of respondents and what degree they are considering studying. And when it comes to the gender of the respondents, the results tilt a bit. More women, for example, would rather study in the UK (69.92%) than the U.S. (64.23%). But 72.09% of the male respondents listed the U.S. as a country they’d consider studying compared to 65.58% for the UK.

After the U.S. and UK, Canada is the next most popular choice for women with 50.81%% of female respondents listing it. Australia follows with 45.93%. For men, Canada is also the third most popular choice, but at a lower level with 43.72% of men listing it as a consideration for studying abroad. Singapore follows Canada with 40.92% of male respondents listing it.

In terms of degrees the respondents report they’re interested in earning, the U.S. remains the most popular choice among MBA candidates. Some 66.32% of MBA-seeking candidates list the U.S. as a country in which they’d consider studying abroad. Next is the UK, which was listed by 57.89% of potential MBA candidates. Germany and Switzerland tied for third with 38.95% of respondents listing the two European countries. Singapore follows closely with 37.89% of respondents listing it as a potential place to earn an MBA.

From the Business of Branding study

For those seeking a master of science degree from a business school, the UK is the most popular choice, with 68.37% of respondents listing it as a potential country to study. The U.S. follows with 66.33% of respondents listing it as a potential country of studying for an MSc degree. Canada follows at 50.51%. Singapore is next with 42.35% of respondents interested in earning an MSc degree listing it as a potential study abroad destination.

The popularity gap between the UK and the U.S. grows even more for potential undergraduate business students. Some 74.75% listed the UK as a potential destination to study abroad for an undergraduate degree while 68.69% listed the U.S. Spain is the third most popular pick for students looking to study abroad for undergraduate business with 56.57% listing it as a potential option. Following Spain is Canada (52.53%), Italy (47.47%), and Australia, Germany, and France (all with 46.46%).

Regardless, the data say the U.S. is still the “standard” for international students considering a business degree, especially the MBA.

“The U.S. is still seen as the gold standard by international students, mainly due to the strength of its academic institutions,” Crisp concludes. “What remains to be seen is how the perceptions of different countries, including the U..S, change for better or worse with the increase in virtual teaching and restricted travel due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”


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