Foreign enrollment soars in colleges
By Connie Llanos
The Los Angeles Daily News, August 10, 2008
Colleges across the Southland are expecting a surge in international students this year, part of a nationwide trend that many experts attribute to a weak dollar.
At the University of Southern California, applications for international students grew by 10 percent this fall. Loyola Marymount saw a 33 percent spurt and University of California, Los Angeles, reports a 25 percent increase.
Nationwide, the government issued 10 percent more student visas this year, and colleges across the country are reporting increases in international student applications.
For students like Jean Foo, the decision to enroll in a U.S. college boiled down to simple math.
A practicing lawyer in her native Singapore, Foo said an increase in American investors there made the idea of an American law degree more of a necessity than a luxury.
But last July Foo would have paid 1.8 Singapore dollars for every $1 U.S. That would have left her paying 76,000 Singapore dollars in tuition and fees at UCLA.
This summer however, the exchange rate is 1.3 Singapore dollars to every $1 U.S. The savings for Foo: 21,000 Singapore dollars.
'Who knows if it will ever be this low again?' Foo said.
As a result, students worldwide are taking advantage and snatching up seats at American colleges.
But international education advocates think the increase is about more than just dollars and cents.
'We expect to see this trend continue,' said Allan Goodman, president of the New York-based Institute for International Education.
'But this is not just about money. It's the country's reputation for quality, lack of corruption and huge range of choice that attracts students.'
Goodman said the number to focus on is not the ratio between the dollar and the euro, yen or peso.
'The number is 4,000 – the number of accredited colleges and universities in the U.S – about a third of the higher education capacity in the whole world,' Goodman said.
'No other country has that many.'
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks the country saw a nationwide dip in international students because restrictions on visas both in and out of the country were tightened.
Horror stories of the mistreatment of international students as they attempted to get into the U.S. coupled with other tales of years-long wait lists for student visas discouraged many students from even applying to schools in the states.
International student enrollment bottomed out during the 2003-04 school year when nationwide enrollment among these students dropped by 2.4 percent – the first time the country had seen a decline in at least five decades.
But in 2007 the U.S. State Department gave out a record 600,000 new student-and-exchange visas.
Tough visa hurdles
Bob Ericksen, director of the Dashew Center for International Students at UCLA, said many students, unfortunately, still feel like they are harshly scrutinized when they are trying to come into the U.S.
'Our students did a research project last spring about students' experiences acquiring visas and entering the country, and there was no shortage of unpleasant experiences shared,' Ericksen said.
'From applying for visas and dealing with uncooperative officials to dealing with officials at port of entry, many feel like they are being treated as criminals. They don't understand why they are receiving so much attention as potential criminals or terrorists when they are trying to come and contribute to society.'
But despite some of the hurdles, once international students begin their studies in the United States, Ericksen said most agree the sacrifices were worth it.
'Students report high levels of satisfaction… they report that it's a welcoming environment,' Ericksen said.
Part of the reason why many students see American colleges as welcoming environments is because these institutions are, in fact, competing on a local, national and international level with each other for these students from abroad.
'Many universities are trying to do more to globalize their campuses and provide students with a global education because this helps prepare students for the world out there that is increasingly small,' said Csilla Samay, director of international outreach at Loyola Marymount.
Samay's department exclusively looks at ways to attract more students from abroad. The goal is to have international students make up 5 percent of the entire student body by 2010, up from the current 2 percent.
Samay said the focus isn't on the financial contributions these students make – Loyola is a private institution so tuition for out-of-state students is the same as for California residents.
But at public universities international students pay top dollar for their American degrees and these students' economic contributions don't stop at the classroom.
Spending in California
From buying textbooks, renting homes, and buying groceries, international students spent more than $2 billion in California alone in 2006, according to statistics from the International Institute of Education.
Nationwide their contributions topped at $14.5 billion.
Still, Justine Su, director of the China Institute at California State University, Northridge, said the benefits of international programs are about the dual enrichment they provides students.
CSUN's institute has created a '2 plus 2' program that allows American and Chinese students to complete their undergraduate degrees in China and the U.S.
Su said the result has been that American and Chinese students are equipped with a global view that will then influence the work they do.
'When we send students abroad they become our best ambassadors,' she said. 'They absorb new ideas and help people speak differently about the American people.'
As for Foo, weeks before she starts her first semester in an American college she is nervous.
She has no friends or family in the city and even a simple task like getting a driver's license is cause for anxiety.
And despite the savings, Foo is still going to end up shelling out about $100,000 in U.S. dollars for tuition, books, food and other living expenses.
Still, Foo believes some things are worth more than money.
'Everybody has that American Dream, you know? You aspire to someday work or live in the U.S. … to experience the American life,' she said.
'This experience is beyond monetary value.'