Washington, DC -- After several years of declining enrollments, foreign students are returning to American colleges and universities. That's the conclusion of two studies released in November 2006: Open Doors 2006, the annual survey of foreign student enrollment conducted by the Institute of International Education (IIE), and a separate survey by the Council of Graduate Schools. But a third survey at that time shows foreign students first need to get past a visa and immigration process that international travelers call the worst in the world.
According to the Open Doors survey, in the 2005-2006 academic year, new foreign student enrollments at American colleges and universities increased 8 percent over the previous year. Some 143,000 students enrolled in the Fall of 2005, compared to about 132,000 a year earlier. IIE says more recent indicators show the trend is continuing. In a separate online survey, about half (52%) of the U.S. institutions reported increases in foreign student enrollments in the Fall of 2006, while the remainder either had no change from the previous year (28%) or showed a decline (20%). The State Department's consular bureau, according to the Open Doors report, also recorded an increase in student visas in the fiscal year ending in September 2006, providing further evidence of returning students.
Where from? Where to?
The largest number of foreign students in the U.S. come from India; about 76,500 Indian students were enrolled at American colleges or universities in the 2005-2006 academic year. China comes in second place with some 62,600 students. Despite these numbers, however, enrollments from India declined 5 percent, while the number of Chinese enrollees stayed about the same as the previous year. Among the countries sending the greatest numbers of students, the largest percentage increases in enrollments came from Korea (up 10% to about 59,000), Taiwan (8% to 28,000), and Mexico (7% to 14,000). While sending smaller numbers overall, both Nepal (6,000 students) and Vietnam (4,600 students) each increased their enrollments by 25 percent over 2004-2005.
The countries sending fewer students to the U.S. include Japan (down 8% to 37,000) and several predominantly Islamic nations: Turkey (7% to 11,600), Indonesia (2% to 7,600), and Pakistan (9% to 5,800). Other decliners include Brazil (down 3% to 7,000), Kenya (3% to 6,600), and Nigeria (2% to 6,200).
Foreign students prefer California over other states. In fact, University of Southern California in Los Angeles attracted the most foreign students in 2005-2006: nearly 6,900. The report says USC has been the leading destination of foreign students for five years in a row. Other leading institutions for foreign students include Columbia, Purdue, New York University, University of Texas-Austin, University of Illinois-Champaign/Urbana, University of Michigan, Boston University, Ohio State, and SUNY-Buffalo. The leading disciplines studied by foreign students were business (18% of the total) and engineering (16%).
Grad schools show larger gains in new students
A separate survey, released earlier in November by the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS), show an even greater increase in new international enrollments. According to CGS, first-time enrollments at graduate institutions of foreign students in 2006 increased 12 percent over 2005. Moreover, new graduate enrollments increased substantially from India (32%) and China (20%). India and China send the most graduate students to the U.S., but the IIE survey showed total foreign student enrollments from India and China either flat or declining. Graduate enrollments overall (both new and continuing students) rose about 1 percent in 2006, but that modest increase was the first gain in overall graduate enrollment in three years, according to CGS.
The CGS study also reports on admissions (students accepted at American graduate schools but not yet enrolled), and the results indicate that the increase in numbers of foreign graduate students should continue beyond this year. Graduate schools in 2006 reported admitting 14 percent more foreign students than in 2005. In 2005, the admission rate increased only 3 percent over the previous year. Increases in admissions jumped significantly as well for students from India (26%) and China (24%).
The leading disciplines studied by foreign graduate students were business and engineering, much like the results in the IIE survey. The number of new enrollees at U.S. graduate schools increased in the fields of engineering (22%) and business (10%) in 2006, as did first-time enrollments in education (8%) and the physical sciences (5%). For admissions to graduate schools, the fastest growing fields were engineering (27%), business (15%), and physical sciences (7%).
The U.S. gains academically, economically, and politically from increasing numbers of foreign students at American institutions. Contact with foreign students, which for some students can be their first contact with people from outside the U.S., adds to the total learning experience of higher education. And the economic impact is significant: IIE estimates that in 2006, foreign students and their families will contribute more than $13 billion to the U.S. economy.
With U.S. public diplomacy under greater scrutiny, the larger number of international students is one of the few pieces of good news for that part of American policy. Experiencing the U.S. first-hand provides a richer experience for foreign students than they can gain from a distance, even with Web sites, e-mail, and inexpensive international telephone calls. Students can use the experience to develop a more sophisticated and complex understanding of American life, culture, and ideas. And foreign students make friends and gain professional contacts that continue for years after they return home.
Someone tell the consular and customs officers
Now the U.S. government needs to get other agencies in synch with its public diplomacy goals. Another survey released in November, this one by the Discover America Partnership, shows the process of just getting to the U.S. is turning off potential visitors in droves. The group surveyed some 2,000 international travelers from 15 countries in the Fall of 2006, and reported some disturbing results:
- By a 2-to-1 margin, travelers rated the U.S. entry process as the world's worst, ranking the paperwork and officials encountered in the U.S. with those from countries in Africa or the Middle East.
- A majority of travelers (54%) called U.S. immigration officials rude.
- International travelers said they feared American government officials more than the threats of terrorism or crime. Some 2/3 of the respondents feared being detained at the border due to a simple mistake or misstatement.
Once past the ports of entry, according to the survey, visitors to the U.S. largely liked what they saw. Some 6 in 10 visitors (63%) say they have a more favorable view of the U.S. because of their visit, and international travelers who had visited the U.S. recently were more likely to hold favorable opinions of the U.S. than those who had not visited the U.S. But travelers talk to family, friends, and colleagues about their experiences, good and bad: about half of the respondents (48%) say discussions with visitors to the U.S. have a significant impact on their views of this country. Plus, four in 10 (40%) indicate that reports of treatment by government officials such as airport security or immigration officers can also make a big impact on their opinions.
Consular and security officials have their jobs to do, but doing these jobs more professionally and respectfully can be good business and good politics.