The Chronicle of Higher Education
From the issue dated December 10, 1999

Foreign Students Continue to Flock to the U.S.

Annual report finds that economic turmoil in Asia did not lead to a decrease in enrollments


The number of foreign students enrolled at colleges and universities in the United States grew by 2 per cent last year, according to statistics being released this week by the Institute of International Education.

That increase brought total foreign-student enrollment to 490,933, a record. Even though the gain was relatively modest , it followed a year in which the number of foreign students had gone up 5 per cent after several years of very small growth.

But many educators say they are just relieved not to see a drop in the total for last year, when economic crises in Asia caused sharp declines in the numbers of students coming to U.S. institutions from several countries. More than half of all foreign students in the United States -- 56 per cent last year -- come from Asia.

The four Asian countries hardest hit by economic turmoil -- Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea, and Thailand -- have been among the top 10 countries in numbers of students sent to U.S. institutions for several years. All four remained in that tier last year, even though the number of students each sent was down significantly. The 75,387 students from the four countries combined were 10,472 fewer than the year before.

Strong gains in the enrollment of students from other countries, however, enabled U.S. institutions to more than make up the difference.

"The increase in foreign-student enrollment is particularly impressive this year in light of the Asian financial crisis," says Allan E. Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education.

"Given all the challenges, it's encouraging that we didn't slide in real numbers," says Marlene Johnson, executive director of NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

Three countries -- Brazil, China, and India -- together sent 9,000 more students to the United States in 1998-99 than in the preceding year.

The statistics are from the institute's annual report on international education, called "Open Doors 1998-99." They are based on a census of the foreign-student population at 2,707 institutions, of which 2,588, or 95.6 per cent, responded to the institute's survey. A grant from the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs supported the collection of the data and publication of the report.

In related studies included in the "Open Doors" report, the institute found that the number of U.S. students doing academic work abroad increased 14.6 per cent in 1997-98. It also found that the number of foreign scholars at more than 300 selected U.S. institutions -- mainly postdoctoral fellows doing research -- was up 7.6 per cent last year, to 70,501.

As expected, the survey found an 18-per-cent drop in enrollment in intensive-English programs, which are often the first points of entry for many foreign students from Asia. Money problems at home were often cited by students as the reason they had to defer such study.

Foreign students now account for 3 per cent of the total enrollment in U.S. higher education, and they pump an estimated $13-billion into the economy in payments for tuition, room and board, entertainment, and other expenses. About 75 per cent of the funds to support foreign students come from outside the United States; 65 per cent of the students cited personal and family resources as their primary sources of support.

Business management, engineering, and computer science were the three most popular fields among foreign students, more than 40 per cent of whom were enrolled in graduate programs.

California attracted more students from abroad last year than any other state -- 64,011. But New York City is the U.S. capital for foreign students, with 30,150 in the five boroughs. Ten per cent of all international students in the United States are enrolled at institutions within a 50-mile radius of midtown Manhattan.

The 51,001 students from China were the most from any country. That number was more than 4,000 higher than in the previous year, yet officials on many U.S. campuses continue to report that their enrollment of students from China has been impeded by the difficulties many students have in obtaining visas (The Chronicle, September 24). Recently, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow acknowledged that it had cut back on the number of student visas being granted to Russians, whose numbers at U.S. institutions also have been growing. Other reports have suggested that students in India and Thailand also have had problems obtaining visas.

The degree of difficulty with visas, combined with stepped-up competition for international students from several other countries, has U.S. educators worried.

"The United States continues to lose market share because lots of other countries -- Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany -- are now competing for these students," says the institute's Mr. Goodman. "Their prices are a lot lower, and their national governments are making this a priority."

Among other things, Mr. Goodman would like to see more federal funds for the network of overseas advising centers sponsored by the U.S. government, where many foreign students first learn about educational opportunities in the United States. "What we want to see is an investment in making American higher education and its diversity more visible in foreign countries," he says.

He also would like to see U.S. visa policies and practices become more responsive to potential students. "The word on the street is that it is much harder to get a visa to study in the United States than in any other country," he says. "I know that, in reality, that's probably not true. But I'd like us to try to make it easier rather than harder for students to come here."

Two weeks ago, NAFSA: Association of International Educators and the Alliance for International Educational and Cultural Exchange, which represents some 60 non-profit organizations, issued a paper arguing for the creation of an international-education policy in the United States.

"What is needed," the statement said, "is a policy that promotes international education in the broadest sense, including encouraging students from other countries to study in the United States, promoting study abroad by U.S. students, supporting the learning of foreign languages and cultures by Americans, and facilitating the exchange of scholars and citizens at all levels of society."

The groups urged President Clinton to set national goals related to international education. They include increasing the U.S. share of foreign students who study outside their home countries, to 40 per cent from an estimated 30 per cent, and encouraging more Americans to study abroad and learn foreign languages. The groups' aim is the formal adoption of a policy on international education by the next Administration. The text of the statement is available on the World-Wide Web (

Ms. Johnson, of NAFSA, says the United States also needs a more cohesive approach to recruiting foreign students.

"We need a national strategy across institutions that addresses issues such as how best to help more international students understand the U.S. higher-education system and learn what options work best for them," she says. "Institutions already are all spending money on recruiting students. The question we need to answer is how to make everybody's money work more effectively," she says. "It's a big world, and we will do a better job if we are more strategic about where and how we spend the money."

A State Department official says the United States wants to insure that foreign students continue to seek an American education. "The presence of international students on our campuses brings a wealth of benefits to our country," says Keith Geiger, Deputy Assistant Secretary for academic programs. "It insures that there will be a cadre of people around the world who understand the United States in very profound ways, which in turn will lead to improved bilateral relations, enhanced business relationships, and increased cultural ties."

He says the department's goal is "to continue to overcome barriers to international educational exchange between the U.S. and other countries," and to adopt a plan of action that will help maintain U.S. leadership in the area.

Last year, New York University enrolled more foreign students than any other institution in the country -- 4,749, or 12.9 per cent of its student body. L. Jay Oliva, the university's president, says that attracting more students from around the world is not a matter of "taking out a lot of ads in the paper and telling everybody how hot you are."

"Our ability to maintain these levels of international students has to do with our willingness to change the institution, to make it truly international," he says. "You have to work at it; it doesn't just happen. The internationalization of the place is a theme of my meetings with deans on a regular basis."

He acknowledges that his institution's popularity among foreign students has something to do with its location. "New York City has national communities of every kind, so folks from overseas find it comfortable to be here," he says. But he also says his university's determination to forge links with partner institutions and scholars abroad is a cornerstone on which its "globalization" has been built.

The university has a "global faculty" program through which it brings scholars from partner institutions around the world to New York to teach and do research on a regular basis. "I tell the deans that if students are willing to come to you from overseas, that's a great foundation, but we also want to be recruiting faculty," says Mr. Oliva.

"Having these faculty members who return regularly makes it possible for students all over the place to hear about us, because the faculty members they already know are also part of our university."

This year, the university began a new program under which foreign students can start their N.Y.U. education with a year at its study center in Florence. The center, called La Pietra, is an estate that was left to the university by the late Sir Harold Acton, a British art historian. About 60 of the 206 students at the center this year are freshmen from other countries, including India and Russia.

"The bottom line," says Mr. Oliva, "is that you can't marginalize international education these days, because the students who come to us expect this."

Educators who have gone to Asia to recruit students in recent months report that, as the region's economies recover, the level of interest in American higher education is again quite high.

"We saw a resurgence of optimism in Asia, and renewed interest by students and their parents in educational opportunities in the United States," says Linda Heaney, president of Linden Educational Services, who led recruiting trips to several Asian countries in October.

She adds that the steps that many U.S. institutions took in recent years to provide emergency financial assistance to Asian students -- steps that kept large numbers from dropping out -- have added to the solid reputation that American higher education enjoys in the region.

Copies of "Open Doors 1998-99" are available from IIE Books for $42.95 each and can be ordered at the institute's on-line bookstore (

Highlights of the report can be found at a different site on the World-Wide Web (