Nearly 128,000 Chinese students studied in America in 2009-10, a 30 percent increase over the previous academic year, the annual study by the Institute of International Education found.
Chinese citizens comprise about 19 percent of the international students in the U.S., the highest percentage of any country. India and South Korea are next, accounting for 15 percent and 10 percent, respectively.
"A global education prepares them to become leaders in their own countries and societies," Ann Stock, assistant U.S. Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs, said in a statement.
Meanwhile, more than 260,000 U.S. students studied abroad in 2008-09, a slight dip over the previous year and likely due to the recession, said Peggy Blumenthal, the institute's executive vice president. Researchers expect the number to rise again next year, she said.
While most Americans study in Britain, Italy and Spain, those nations have declined in popularity since 2007-08. Countries with the biggest increases include Peru, South Korea and Chile, followed by Argentina and South Africa.
The growing interest in nontraditional destinations is partly because students with a wider variety of majors are deciding to travel, Blumenthal said.
Public health majors can go to South Africa to learn about the AIDS crisis, while business majors could travel to China and environmental majors might study in South America, Blumenthal said. Some of those countries are appealing because of their lower cost of living, she noted.
Also, the fact that English is more widely spoken makes it easier for Americans to study in more places, said Allan E. Goodman, the institute's president and CEO.
"Ten or 15 years ago, you couldn't go to France or Germany unless you were fluent," Goodman said. "English has opened the world up."
The U.S. hosts more international students than any other country - 691,000 last year, up 26 percent in the past decade - which experts say shows the appeal of the higher education model here.
Most foreign students study business and management, followed by engineering, physical and life sciences, and math and computer science.
Overall, they contribute nearly $20 billion to the U.S. economy through tuition, room and board, and other expenses, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
The top U.S. institutions hosting international students - with more than 7,000 each in the 2009-10 academic year - were the University of Southern California, University of Illinois and New York University.
About 9 percent of the freshman class at Bryn Mawr College is from China, an increase from 6 percent last year, said Jenny Rickard, the school's chief enrollment and communications officer.
Rickard traveled to China last fall to promote the elite women's college near Philadelphia. She said having a diverse student body "enriches the educational opportunities we are able to provide."
"It really helps us grow as an institution as well," Rickard said. "By bringing in different perspectives, you learn a lot about yourself."
The Institute of International Education is a New York-based nonprofit whose Open Doors 2010 report was produced with support from the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
Open Doors 2010 report: http://www.iie.org/opendoors