International Enrollments at U.S. Colleges Grow but Still Rely on China

Ricky Wong for The Chronicle

At the China Education Expo 2011 in Beijing, American and other foreign colleges recruited Chinese students. The number of Chinese students attending U.S. colleges rose by more than 23 percent in the 2010 academic year, and some campuses have "reached the saturation point," one expert says.
November 14, 2011

The number of international students enrolling in American colleges and universities grew at a faster clip in 2010 than a year earlier, reaching an all-time high of 723,277. But the growth was heavily reliant on two countries: China and Saudi Arabia, according to data released this week by the Institute of International Education.

The explosion of interest among Chinese students continued unabated, with numbers rising more than 23 percent—the fourth year of double-digit increases. Meanwhile, Saudi students, while coming in much smaller numbers, benefited from generous government scholarships, expanding their presence by 44 percent.

In all, the numbers of foreign students in the U.S. grew by nearly 5 percent, compared with 3 percent a year earlier. The number of first-time students, perhaps a more critical measure of international interest, grew nearly 6 percent compared with 2009's troubling 1-percent increase.

Other surveys that focused on fall 2011 enrollments suggest growth rates the same or higher this year compared with last. The Council of Graduate Schools, for example, reported an 8-percent increase in new graduate students this fall, up from 3 percent last fall.

Yet the institute's annual "Open Doors" data paint a mixed picture for the United States. While the fall of 2009 marked a low point after several years of strong growth, 2010's healthier showing does not match that of the boom years of 2007 and 2008.

Enrollments in bachelor's-degree programs grew at a brisk 7 percent, driven in large part by China: The numbers of Chinese undergraduates coming to the United States rose 43 percent, to 57,000 students. (See related article, Page A20.) Meanwhile total graduate enrollments grew less than 1 percent, reflecting the continued global recession as well as declines by some graduate programs in their ability to offer stipends. Enrollments in associate-degree programs grew a respectable 4 percent, reversing a decline in 2009.

Of the top 10 countries sending students to the United States, five saw growth and five saw declines. In addition to the increases in students from China and Saudi Arabia, Vietnam's numbers—although relatively small—grew 14 percent. Mexico and South Korea grew at a more modest 2 percent each.

Among the countries in decline, India remains of most concern to colleges, as it sends the largest number of students to the United States after China. Although total enrollments from India dropped only 1 percent, those figures were propped up by a heavy use of Optional Practical Training, a program through which graduates can stay on and work temporarily. The number of Indian students in the program grew 26 percent. The number pursuing undergraduate degrees declined by 8 percent, and those pursuing graduate degrees declined by 7 percent.

Japan continued its precipitous slide, falling 14 percent, and Turkey and Canada both fell 2 percent.

How Much Is Too Much?

Yet, some educators say, the fact that the United States remains the top choice for many students, particularly students of means, suggests that the system's academic strength is intact.

"Every decade there are one or two countries driving the numbers," says Peggy Blumenthal, senior counselor to the president of the Institute of International Education. In the 70s, it was Iran, and in the 90s, Japan and other parts of Asia dominated.

For the next decade, says Ms. Blumenthal, Vietnam, Turkey, Indonesia, and Brazil are among the places to watch.

"If China and Saudi Arabia disappear in 10 years—and I don't think they will—these are the countries that will be able to produce a large increase in numbers," she says.

Others are less sanguine.

"We are so tied into the Chinese economy in so many ways that if something were to happen in China, we'd all be feeling the impact," says Scott E. King, assistant dean of international programs at the University of Iowa, where more than 1,245 of the 1,734 international undergraduates are from China. The university, like many others, is beginning to ask itself, How much is too much?

The rate of growth of Chinese enrollments actually slowed slightly in 2010, down from a 30-percent increase in 2009. The actual numbers of new Chinese students increased slightly, though, to 29,930. 

 English-language-program enrollments surged by 14 percent after falling the year before. But, again, much of that growth was driven by China and Saudi Arabia, says Mark W. Harris, president of ELS Educational Services, a major language-instruction provider.

open doors snapshot

Among the ELS centers, Saudi enrollments grew 143 percent in 2010 and Chinese enrollments by 96 percent. Those programs saw continued growth in 2011, says Mr. Harris, thanks in part to a weak dollar. A strong showing in English-language enrollments is generally seen as a plus for colleges, as many of those students go on to seek degrees in the United States.

"There's no question that the Chinese flow of students will keep coming," says Mr. Harris. "Some universities we work with have already reached the saturation point."

Making an Effort

While much about the flow of international students remains beyond a college's control—currency fluctuations, national visa policies, and the job market, to name a few factors—many colleges have been trying harder to drive enrollments up.

According to the results of a survey this fall by eight higher-education associations, more than half of responding colleges said that they had invested more heavily in recruitment, either through adding staff or developing international collaborations with an eye toward increasing enrollments.

This has been particularly true at public institutions, where such efforts have been fueled by shrinking state support.

"As someone who has worked in international education for a long time, I hate to say it, but it's pretty much revenue-driven," says Lawrence H. Bell, director of international education at the University of Colorado at Boulder, about this push by many public colleges. "The domestic market is just not as large as the international market."

The State of Colorado exempted colleges last year from counting foreign students toward their out-of-state enrollment caps. That freed up institutions like Boulder to begin recruiting overseas. This year the university's international undergraduate enrollments grew by 113 students, to 626, with much of that growth coming from China.

Bringing American undergraduates in contact with a more international student body has also been important to state universities where campus diversity has been hard to come by otherwise.

At the University of Iowa, a declining state population and a minimal international undergraduate presence—just 400 in 2007—prompted deep discussions among the staff, says Mr. King. Today the campus has 1,734 international undergraduates, of whom 72 percent are from China.

Mr. King says they're happy with these increases. In a state that leads the country, after California, in agricultural exports, and where international companies like John Deere are major employers, Iowa's undergraduates are getting exposure to the rest of the world.

Yet the university is also pursuing new markets. Mr. King, for example, recently returned from a three-week trip to the Middle East.

The University of Cincinnati, with 43,000 students, has undergone a similar transformation. Four years ago it created an international admissions office, which now has seven full-time employees plus two representatives in China and one in India. While graduate enrollments have remained flat, in part because of cutbacks in some programs, undergraduate numbers exceeded 600 this year, filling seats and providing an international perspective to Ohio students, says Jonathan Weller, associate director of admissions. Meanwhile, recruiters have their eye on Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam as they continue to expand abroad.

At Portland State University, Saudi Arabia is the top country sending students, building on the institution's longstanding ties to the Middle East, says Gil Latz, vice provost for international affairs. The university is now making inroads into India, Indonesia, Thailand, Turkey, and Vietnam.

In Vietnam, Portland State created a partnership with Intel, which has both a campus outside Portland and a plant in Ho Chi Minh City. Through the program, engineering students from six technical universities begin their studies at their home institutions in Vietnam and complete them in Portland. "That has given us a huge identity in Vietnam and has attracted other students from the country," says Mr. Latz.

This trend extends beyond regional public institutions. PFL Group International, which helps universities recruit students in emerging markets, has seen more interest in its services. "People are getting saturated" by China and India, says Chris Price, director of the North American division. "So diversity and boutique markets are much more appealing."

Slow Growth

Some colleges, particularly private institutions, have taken a slower approach to international recruitment. Vanderbilt University, for example, has emphasized diversity over raw numbers, says Douglas L. Christiansen, vice provost for enrollment and dean of admissions. Vanderbilt perhaps can afford more than other institutions to invest in this strategy, and Mr. Christiansen admits it's neither cheap nor easy. "We have to be experts in many parts of the world," vetting applications, evaluating high schools, and understanding grading systems.

It also means turning away plenty of qualified applicants. This year Vanderbilt received 735 undergraduate applications from Chinese students and enrolled only 22.

Mr. Christiansen has long worried about the rush by many colleges to recruit in places like China, where colleges can often get the best bang for their recruiting buck.

"If we have too many students on our campuses from one country—and right now it's India and China and South Korea—I worry that, to our domestic students, internationalization means students from Asia."

At Shoreline Community College, in Washington, which began developing international-education programs 30 years ago, China isn't even among the top countries sending students to the college. Instead, Hong Kong and Indonesia top the list.

"We want to be very cautious in how we approach each market," says Diana L. Sampson, executive director of international education at Shoreline. That is particularly important at her institution, where more than 90 percent of international students continue on to earn a four-year degree. "We want to ensure our students will be successful."

Strategies and Summits

Of course, colleges don't operate in a vacuum. The Obama Administration continues to promote educational exchanges. The fall the United States held two summits in Washington, with India and Indonesia. And in a speech this spring in Chile, Mr. Obama pledged to develop exchange programs with Latin America that would bring 100,000 students to the U.S. while sending an equal number of American students to the region.

These efforts reflect the importance of international students to the U.S. economy. They make up a $20-billion industry, according to Nafsa: Association of International Educators.

Yet skeptics note that these pledges come with little, if any, money attached and wonder how deep such commitments are.

"I don't see us having a comprehensive national strategy" when it comes to international engagement, says Victor C. Johnson, senior adviser for public policy at Nafsa. Instead, he says, the various federal agencies that have a hand in international-student flows have different missions and different orientations. "The Commerce Department leads recruitment missions, but the State Department won't cooperate with them because they can't agree on the use of agents. How silly can you get?"

Allan E. Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education, argues that the federal government has taken "a much stronger hand" in international higher education since the September 11 terrorist attacks.

"I think our government has done about all it can, from Fulbrights to summitry, given how decentralized we are," he says. "That means universities also need to have a foreign policy. They need to think about diversity because they're going to be the drivers of big numbers here."

Future Markets

International educators and recruiters say colleges should generally look to countries with strong ties to the United States, a growing middle-class, an appetite for education, and a lack of capacity to absorb many more students.

Of those, India would seem a good fit, but it remains largely a market of graduate students sensitive to local economic conditions. Interest in studying at American colleges has fallen because "students feared that they wouldn't get jobs in the U.S. after graduation," says Bindu Chopra, regional director at N&N Chopra Consultants, in India, which advises students on where to study.

Many Indian students instead turned to Canada, says Rahul Choudaha, director of development and innovation at World Education Services, a nonprofit organization that specializes in foreign credentials and trends. With a strong economy and a need for skilled workers, Canada saw its recruiting strategies pay off. (See related article, Page A19.)

Mr. Choudaha believes that the undergraduate market holds potential—but not until the children of India's emerging wealthy class are old enough to go to college. He predicts 2015 will usher in a "golden age for India."

Brazil, another rising nation, may hold possibility as well. Its recently announced plan to send 75,000 graduate students abroad on government scholarships is likely to benefit U.S. graduate schools, but some experts have seen little appetite among families to send their undergraduates abroad.

The results of the fall 2011 survey of American colleges suggest that more students from South Korea, Indonesia, Brazil—and even Europe—have begun arriving in the United States. Yet, the results also show that those rates of growth continue to be dwarfed by interest from China and Saudi Arabia.


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