Number of Foreign Students in U.S. Hit a New High Last Year

Rick Friedman for The Chronicle

Jialu Chen (left) and Lingyue Yang are among the 116 students from China enrolled at Mount Holyoke College. The college, like many others, has seen its numbers of Chinese undergraduates grow rapidly in recent years.
November 16, 2009

The number of foreign students attending American colleges hit an all-time high in 2008, capping three consecutive years of vigorous growth, according to new data from the Institute of International Education.

Some 671,616 international students attended U.S. institutions in 2008-9, an increase of almost 8 percent from a year earlier. First-time-student enrollments grew even more robustly, by nearly 16 percent.

But the rosy data highlighted in the annual "Open Doors" report may obscure some potentially worrisome trends. Though graduate programs typically rely more on international students, enrollment grew far more strongly at the undergraduate level, where the number of students jumped 11 percent, than at the graduate level, where enrollments climbed a little more than 2 percent. What's more, the increase in students pursuing undergraduate studies was largely dependent on enrollment from China, which shot up by 60 percent.

Nor do the figures reflect the impact of the global economic downturn, which could affect both students' ability to pay for college and the financial assistance American institutions provide.

"Everything has to be set against the economic crisis we're mired in," says Ken Curtis, assistant vice president for international education and global engagement at California State University at Long Beach.

Indeed, a survey this fall of 700 institutions suggests a mixed picture: Half of the institutions reported foreign-student enroll ment increases this year over last, while a quarter experienced declines. A second recent survey, by the Council of Graduate Schools, found that growth in the number of first-time international students in American graduate schools was flat. Enrollments from India and South Korea, two of the three largest sources of foreign students, declined.

"The question," says Debra W. Stewart, the council's president, "is the extent to which we can continue to rely on international students to feed our graduate schools."

Victor C. Johnson, senior adviser for public policy at Nafsa: Association of International Educators, says the recent slowdown points to the need for a national strategy for international-student recruitment.

"We don't want to wake up one day and find out that, because we have not adopted a national policy, we're no longer competitive," Mr. Johnson says. "We need to respond before it's too late to do something."

Other international educators, however, point out that the United States remains the top destination for foreign college students, despite efforts by colleges in Australia, Canada, and elsewhere to attract them.

Key source countries like China and India simply cannot meet domestic demand for higher education, and a rising middle class in those nations means more families have the money to send their children overseas to study.

"There's still more talent out there than can be accommodated," says Peggy Blumenthal, executive vice president of the Institute of International Education, who notes that international students contribute an estimated $17.6-billion to the U.S. economy. "It's not a fixed pie that we're all competing for pieces of."

Eye on India

Still, both the Open Doors data and the council's report suggest that the makeup of the international student body in this country is shifting. If current enrollment trends hold, the number of foreign undergraduates, which includes students studying for associate or bachelor's degrees, is poised to surpass the number of those pursuing graduate degrees. In 2008-9, there were 269,874 international undergraduate students and 283,329 graduate students. (Students enrolled in intensive-English or other nondegree programs and recent graduates who are temporarily staying in the United States to work through the Optional Practical Training program are also counted in overall figures.)

In a way, that would be a reversion to historic trends. Until 2001-2, foreign undergraduates at American colleges outnumbered their graduate-school counterparts, Open Doors data show.

There are several reasons behind the earlier shift, according to Ms. Blumenthal and Rajika Bhandari, director of research and evaluation at the institute. Financial slumps in the 1980s and 1990s depressed enrollments from Japan and the oil-producing countries of the Middle East, which traditionally sent large numbers of undergraduates to the United States.

India and China, which predominantly send graduate students, rose to become the top two suppliers of international students to American colleges. And the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks convinced some parents that the United States was not a safe place for their teenage sons or daughters to study.

This time around, all eyes are on India. It and China account for more than 45 percent of all foreign students enrolled in American graduate schools. The rate of enrollment growth of Indian graduate students studying in the United States has slowed significantly, from 14.4 percent in 2007 to just 4.3 percent in 2008.

Foreign Students in the U.S. by
Region of Origin, 2008-9

Asia 62%
Europe 13%
Latin America 10%
Africa 5%
Middle East 4%
North America 4%
Oceania 1%
Total 671,616
Note: Percentages are rounded and so do not add to 100 percent.
Source: Institute of International Education

This fall the number of Indians studying in American graduate programs declined by 4 percent, according to the Council of Graduate Schools' survey of 257 institutions. New enrollments of Indian graduate students dropped even more sharply, by 16 percent, the council found. (Graduate enrollments from South Korea, the third-largest source of students, also declined.)

The falloff in Indian students is hitting some institutions and degree programs hard.

The number of new Indian graduate students this fall at the University of Georgia is down nearly 50 percent. At California State University at Long Beach, many students started but did not complete applications for the master's-degree program in computer science, which typically draws large numbers of Indian students, says Nathan Jensen, senior director of the university's Center for International Education.

Recruiters in India say that students are steering clear of the United States because the job market is so bad.

"The U.S. was looked at as a land of opportunities. It was seen as a utopia for good students who were confident they would get jobs," says Bindu Chopra, head of the Bangalore office of N&N Chopra Consultants, which advises students on studying overseas.

"When they see that they are unlikely to get jobs, they'd rather not take loans and spend so much and go for a graduate degree."

Observers are also watching closely to see whether enrollments will rebound as the global financial crisis eases. Already, some Indian students are opting for countries like Britain or Singapore because they make it easier to stay and work after graduation, says Premlatha P.M., founder of Sri Vajra Consultants, in Chennai. Meanwhile, India's new education minister has vowed to expand higher-education and research capacity at home.

A long-term slowdown in graduate enrollments from overseas could have an outsized effect on American institutions because international students make up 10.5 percent of the graduate-student body. By contrast, they account for less than 2 percent of those enrolled at the undergraduate level.

A Chinese Wave

Despite discouraging signs this year, Indian enrollments, including both graduate and undergraduate students, actually posted a healthy 9.2 percent increase in 2008, according to Open Doors.

Other countries saw even larger gains. Enrollments from Vietnam climbed 46.2 percent, matching the previous year's increase, while enrollments from Saudi Arabia, fueled by a large government scholarship program, jumped 28.2 percent. The number of Nepalese students studying in the United States surged by 29.6 percent.

But the most significant development was the growth in Chinese students, whose numbers swelled by 21.1 percent over all and by nearly 60 percent at the undergraduate level. The rise is even more pronounced at some institutions. Doctoral-level institutions, for example, reported an increase of 130 percent, on average, in Chinese undergraduates, Ms. Blumenthal says.

Anecdotally, at least, that growth appears to be sustained. At the University of Southern California, which once again enrolled more international students than any other American college, the number of Chinese students increased 61 percent this fall. Forty percent of Purdue University's latest international freshman class this fall is Chinese.

What's behind that trend? Thanks to a push by their government to make secondary education universal, more Chinese students are seeking college degrees, but there are not enough colleges, and too few high-quality institutions, to meet the need. A decline in the value of the dollar has put an American education in reach of middle-class Chinese families—who probably had already been salting away much of their disposable income to pay for education.

"The day their child was born, these families were dreaming of studying in the United States," says Nithyanantha J. Sevanthinathan, director of international programs for the Lone Star College system.

There also is growing interest in China in American-style liberal-arts education.

Jialu Chen was so intent on studying at a liberal-arts college that she applied to 28 before eventually settling on Mount Holyoke College, in part because of a generous financial-aid package. "They really value education and develop you to be a full person," says Ms. Chen, a mathematics and international-relations major from Shanghai. "They give you a lot of attention."

The dean of the college, Ms. Chen volunteers with some amazement, recently sent her an e-mail message checking to see how she was handling her heavy course load, of 28 credits.

Ms. Chen, now a sophomore, is part of a wave of Chinese students at Mount Holyoke. In 2001 the women's college had just 10 Chinese students, says Jane B. Brown, vice president for enrollment and college relations; it now enrolls 116, the most from any foreign country.

Having such a large group of students from a single foreign country has raised some concerns, says Donna Van Handle, the college's dean of international students. "It's easier to default to talking in their native language," she says. "We have to think of ways to get them out of their little groups."

Chinese recruiters also attribute the increase to a move by some American colleges to offer conditional admission to students whose English-language skills might not otherwise meet entrance standards. With a provisional offer in hand, students can polish their English at the college or at an approved language school before taking an English-proficiency exam.

Conditional admissions may appeal to students who don't have time to sit for both the English test and China's rigorous national entrance exam, says Percy Ho, vice president for overseas development at AOJI Enrolment Centre.

Economic Effects

In addition, American colleges are simply becoming more active recruiters in China.

The University of Southern California, for example, opened an office in Shanghai this spring, which will aid with recruitment as well as with the university's other international activities.

"It's a critical area for us," Jerome A. Lucido, the university's vice provost for enrollment policy and management, said by phone from Hong Kong, where five staff members were about to leave for mainland China on a recruiting tour.

Other colleges are also trying to step up their overseas recruiting, in China and elsewhere. Mr. Sevanthinathan, of Lone Star, traveled to India this fall and hopes to visit China next year. The five-campus community-college system, outside Houston, has drawn foreign students in the past through personal or family connections, but Mr. Sevanthinathan argues that two-year colleges could appeal to even more students as an affordable path to college. (Foreign-student enrollments at community colleges increased 10.5 percent in 2008-9.)

"You can't just sit on the sidelines and rely on word of mouth," says Mr. Sevanthinathan, who came to the United States from Indonesia as a student.

In fact, many of the institutions that reported international enrollment increases this fall credit active recruitment efforts.

But fiscal belt-tightening has squeezed international-recruitment budgets at many colleges, leaving them to rely on more novel and cost-effective ways to attract top students. Mount Holyoke, for example, has improved its international-admissions Web site and appointed student volunteers to deal specifically with international applicants. The Rochester Institute of Technology is cultivating relationships with universities and governments to draw larger numbers of qualified students. The university has 61 students from Kazakhstan through a government scholarship program, says James G. Miller, senior vice president for enrollment management and career services.

At Cal State-Long Beach, where travel restrictions have nixed biannual overseas recruitment trips, Mr. Curtis, the assistant vice president for international education, hopes to draw students from closer to home, at nearby community colleges. About 70 percent of the university's incoming international undergraduates are usually transfers from two-year institutions. But admissions freezes and limits on the number of students the university can accept from outside its local area have shut out many of those students, too, he says.

"They're ready to transfer, and we're putting up a stop sign," Mr. Curtis says. "The policy isn't directed at international students, but it's affecting them."