The number of international students enrolled in American colleges in the fall of 2007 shattered previous records and represents the largest one-year increase in decades, according to new data from the Institute of International Education.
Educators and government officials say the bounce indicates that hostile student-visa policies, weak recruiting efforts by colleges, and insufficient government support are things of the past. A weak dollar, the growing number of internationally mobile students, the lack of higher-education capacity in key source countries like China, and a rising middle class in those same countries have also helped fuel the growth.
In all, the 623,805 international students who studied here in 2007-8, an increase of 7 percent from a year earlier, contributed an estimated $15-billion to the U.S. economy. "It's a great piece of news for U.S. campuses and for U.S. higher education to know that students from abroad clearly continue to see the United States as a destination of choice, clearly want to come here, and indeed are succeeding," said Peggy Blumenthal, executive vice president of the institute, which released the data as part of its annual "Open Doors" report.
Yet certain trends within the data show some potential weaknesses, and competition from other countries, such as Canada and Britain, will continue to keep American colleges on their toes.
Advocates of a more-coordinated national approach to international-student recruitment say the United States should not become complacent.
"The worse thing that could happen would be if people took from these encouraging numbers that they could sort of sit back and not do anything anymore because everybody's going to come here anyway," said Victor C. Johnson, senior adviser for public policy at Nafsa: Association of International Educators. "Schools need to keep working, obviously, because they have competitors out there who are also working, many with more support from their governments than our schools get."
The Big Bang
First, the good news. As part of those record-breaking enrollments, the United States saw a 23.5-percent jump in the number of students enrolled in intensive-English programmes, which Ms. Blumenthal calls a "bellwether," as many of those students go on to pursue degrees here.
The number of new international students rose 10.1 percent over the previous year, another good sign that the United States has shaken off stagnant growth. (A survey this fall of nearly 800 institutions found that 57 percent saw foreign-student enrollment increases this year over last.)
Some key source countries also showed positive gains in 2007. The number of students from China grew an eye-popping 19.8 percent. Indian enrollments jumped 12.8 percent. Enrollments from South Korea grew by 10.8 percent.
Several developing countries also saw significant increases. Enrollments from Vietnam grew 45.3 percent on top of a 31.3 percent increase the previous year. Driven by an extensive government scholarship programme, enrollments from Saudi Arabia increased by 25.2 percent, and Nigeria jumped into the top 20 sending countries with an increase of 4.7 percent.
Many colleges are trying harder than ever to reach out to potential students, particularly undergraduates. According to the fall survey, 57 percent of colleges said they had made special efforts to stop enrollment declines.
More college representatives are setting up partnerships with institutions abroad, attending overseas recruiting fairs, responding quickly to inquiries and applications from abroad, and working with country-based agents.
The U.S. government has also put more resources into promoting American higher education and continues to streamline the visa-approval process, which, officials acknowledge, had become overly strict in the years immediately following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Largely because of those restrictions, the United States experienced enrollment declines for three years before bouncing back in 2006 with a 3.2-percent increase.
A number of educators and students confirmed that the visa-approval process has gone much more smoothly in the past couple of years. "These days officials are very relaxed about giving visas" in India, said Suchreet Kaur, who is earning a master's degree in computer science at San Jose State University. "Just about anyone who wants to get a visa gets a visa."
Between the Lines
But if the figures are parsed, some numbers don't look so rosy. For one, some of the growth reflects better reporting on the part of colleges. The University of California at Los Angeles reported an 18-percent foreign-student enrollment increase in 2007, but Bob Ericksen, director of the university's Dashew Center for International Students and Scholars, said that the actual rise was about 5 percent.Better reporting also accounts for some of the increase in national Optional Practical Training numbers, according to educators and the institute. OPT, as it is known, allows students to stay on and work for up to 12 months after graduation (or 29 months if they are in certain fields, such as science or technology).
Although no longer students, these workers are counted as such for government tracking purposes and accounted for 9.1 percent of international-student numbers in 2007.
According to the institute, participation in OPT in 2007 grew 36.3 percent over the previous year. If only degree-seeking students are considered, the rate of growth is nowhere near as high as the aggregate increase suggests. The number of students seeking graduate degrees, who account for nearly half of all foreign students here, grew by 4.8 percent in 2007. The number of students seeking bachelor's degrees, who account for almost one-third of all foreign students here, grew 4.6 percent.
The number of students seeking associate degrees actually fell 3.7 percent in 2007.
In addition a report by the Council of Graduate Schools, released this month, concluded that the rate of growth in graduate enrollments was slowing down.
More Government Attention
Despite those mixed indicators, one trend is clear: Colleges and the U.S. government are both working harder to attract students.
After experiencing years of declining budgets, the State Department's EducationUSA Advising Centers, the main means through which the government promotes American higher education abroad, have more resources at their disposal.
In 2006-7, the State Department spent $10.67-million on advising worldwide, up from $3.5-million in 2001-2, said Thomas A. Farrell, deputy assistant secretary for academic programs at the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
The money has gone into technological developments and staff hiring and training. New regional educational-advising coordinators have been hired in Brazil, China, India, Japan, South Africa, and Turkey.
The government has also been offering what it calls "opportunity grants" to students who might not have the money to pay testing fees or travel for a visa interview. This year $1.5-million went into the program.
'It Was Really Us'
Colleges have also become more sophisticated about the ways in which they pursue overseas students.
Murray State University, in Kentucky, is in many ways typical of that trend.
Michael Basile, director of the university's Institute for International Studies, said the institution saw its international enrollments plummet after 2001, from 500 to a low of 296 five years later.
"We had to do some institutional soul searching because we couldn't keep blaming it on 9/11 and all the other measures taken by the government," he said. "It was really us."
The university took several critical steps in recent years. It began accepting scores from the International English Language Testing System, in addition to the Test of English as a Foreign Language, to attract more students from countries in which both tests are commonly used. It improved its online application process and began responding more quickly.
Last fall, the college's Board of Regents agreed to lower tuition for international students by one-third, in expectation that the college would ultimately make up that money by attracting more students.
New foreign-student enrollments are up 30 percent this fall from last year. "It's less the result of more activity running around the world," said Mr. Basile of the college's strategy, "than it is by internal changes we made here."
The Houston Community College system, which attracts more foreign students than any of its peers, has taken a different approach, one tailored to its programs and surroundings.
The system, which enrolled nearly 5,000 international students this fall, has built on longstanding ties with the local Vietnamese community and relies on an informal network of faculty members and administrators who actively promote the college overseas during study-abroad trips or other travels.
A partnership with the Saigon Institute of Technology, in Ho Chi Minh City, provides a steady pipeline of students who want to continue their education in Houston, said Gigi Do, director of Houston's Office of International Initiatives.
Similarly, Green River Community College, near Seattle, which enrolls more than 1,000 international students, created a partnership with Beijing Normal University's campus in Zhuhai, China. Students spend a year on the China campus and a year at Green River. They can then go on to earn a bachelor's degree at an American university, said Ross Jennnings, vice president for international programs at Green River.
Mr. Jennings himself spends more than two months every year visiting universities and high schools abroad to recruit students, and he has two full-time staff members to help him. The college has marketed itself internationally for two decades, he said: "Steady as she goes is how we've done things."
For students, such personalized efforts can make the difference.
Ms. Kaur, the computer-science student from India, said that she initially wanted to attend a more prestigious institution, such as Stanford University.
Then she listened to a talk by Sigurd Meldal, chairman of San Jose State's computer-science department, on one of his regular trips to India. Hearing him describe the practical orientation of the university's programs, and its close ties to Silicon Valley, changed her mind.
"I wanted an authentic viewpoint," she said. "And what better viewpoint than the head of the department of computer science?"
A number of colleges that have seen significant enrollment increases say that getting campuswide support is a key to their success. "When that comes from the top, everyone is working toward the same goal," said Erin FitzGerald, dean of international programs and development at Johnson & Wales University, which has four campuses in the United States.
The institution, which enrolled about 1,500 foreign students this fall, created an international strategic enrollment team in the summer of 2006.
As with a number of other colleges, Johnson & Wales is focusing on both retention - particularly career services - and recruitment. Students and employers, for example, are now encouraged to consider Optional Practical Training. And the college is hiring foreign graduates to act as country-based recruiters.
Ms. FitzGerald attributed the colleges 4.6-percent growth rate last year, and estimated 12-percent growth rate this year, to those efforts. But she said they have no doubt been helped by a weak dollar.
Mark W. Harris, chief executive and president of ELS Language Centers, said the dollar has boosted English-language-program enrollments as well. ELS Centers, which are based at dozens of campuses around the United States, have seen enrollments grow 30 percent a year for the past two years, and they now enroll an estimated 20,000 students in any given year, more than half of whom will go on to seek degrees in the United States.
Mr. Harris said several other factors have contributed to the rising numbers. Among them: more government scholarship programs from countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Libya; and a rising middle class in countries like China and Vietnam, which don't have enough seats to educate all of those who wish to pursue a college education.
Still, Mr. Harris said he is not satisfied with what the United States is doing over all. Colleges could provide more effective outreach, including more undergraduate scholarships and the use of country-based recruiters, he said, noting that the use of recruiters is a common practice in places like Australia.
"We are not winning, we are losing this international recruitment effort," he said. "No matter how much growth there is, we should not misinterpret where we stand with regard to other countries."
Colleges are now wondering how the global financial crisis is going to affect enrollment. Will recruiting budgets be cut and colleges retrench, or will institutions be more eager to seek full-tuition-paying students? Will the stronger dollar make the United States a less appealing destination?
Some university officials argue that education is a lifelong pursuit for many families, and thus less sensitive to year-to-year economic turbulence.
"They've been saving for 20 years," said Mitch Leventhal, vice provost for international affairs at the University of Cincinnati. "This money is in the bank. They're prepared to spend it."
Yet some programs have proved to be extremely price sensitive. Mr. Harris said the weakening of the South Korean won, which has depreciated 30 percent since the beginning of the year, has led some people to delay their enrollments in English-language programs or cancel them altogether.
South Korea sends more students to the United States than any other country besides China and India.
As for the federal government's commitment to international education, Mr. Farrell said educators should not worry. When you are dealing with a $15-billion service industry, he said, a $13-million commitment to promote higher education abroad "is the best damn investment the U.S. government is making."
Mr. Johnson, of Nafsa, said he hopes the administration of President-elect Barack Obama carries out what he and others have long called for: a coordinated, interagency approach to international-student recruitment.
"We're past the stage now of several years of digging ourselves out of a hole," he said. "We seem to be on a growth curve now. So let's take that asset and build on it with a real solid national effort."