By Susan Heavey
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - More than 800,000 international students studied at U.S. colleges and universities last year, a record high fueled largely by an influx of young scholars from China, U.S. data released on Monday showed.
That is a 7 percent increase - or 55,000 students - from the 2011 academic year, according to annual findings from the Institute of International Education and the U.S. Department of State's annual "Open Doors" report.
Much of the growth was driven by undergraduates from China, which already sends the most students to the United States, officials said. The number of students from Saudi Arabia also grew.
"Both total enrollment and new enrollment had slowed after the economic slowdown in 2007/08, and both have now rebounded to previous high rates of growth," the report said, highlighting the impact of the recent U.S. recession that officially ran from 2007 to 2009, but has still left an impact.
Foreign students can help add some $24 billion to the U.S. economy either through tuition dollars or more long-term through research, business connections or other endeavors, officials said.
Overall, international students make up less than 4 percent of the 21 million attending U.S. colleges and universities, they added.
Chinese college student enrollment overall for the 2012-2013 school year increased 21 percent to almost 235,000 students, including a 26 percent jump in the number of undergraduates, the data showed.
"Students from the top three places of origin - China, India and South Korea - now represent 49 percent of the total number of international students in the United States, with the number from China increasing, and the numbers from India and South Korea declining," the report said.
Other countries also saw a surge in students seeking to study in the United States.
The number of students from Saudi Arabia increased 30 percent to 45,000, funded in large part by the Middle Eastern nation's scholarship program, according to the report. Government scholarships in other nations such as Brazil and Kuwait also helped to send more international scholars to the United States, it added.
Other nations, including India, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan and Turkey, sent fewer students to U.S. schools.
In comparison, China was less of a draw for U.S. students looking to study abroad. Their top choices were Britain, Italy, Spain and France. China ranked fifth in popularity as a study destination, the report found.
Overall, more than 283,000 American students studied abroad last year, which was a record high.
(Reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Maureen Bavdek)