Asian Students Feel the Pinch Of Tighter Belts Back Home

Asians enrolled in American colleges are struggling to pay tuition costs.

The plaintive roar of Asia's tiger nations is being heard on America's college campuses, calling international students home - or at least prevailing on them to spend less.

And South Korean native Han Byundgo has heard the call.

The young management consultant, who's studying English at Boston University, used to eat in restaurants several nights a week. Now he eats vegetables and rice that he cooks in his apartment. He still sports a puffy Polo parka and wide-ribbed corduroy pants, but these are duds left over from more-prosperous days.

Mr. Han has been in the US seven months. But soon he will go home - a full year early - because his firm can no longer afford to pay for his American education.

Like Han, many English learners are being forced by Asia's economic crunch to leave. Even some full-time students are returning to their homelands mid-way through the school year, although few hard numbers are available about the extent of the exodus.

Big spenders

Of almost half a million foreign students in the US, 57 percent come from Asia. The Asian departures, if they continue, could deal a blow to America's towns, cities, and schools, which benefit from the $7 billion foreign students spend each year. Even those who do stay are shedding their DKNY jackets or Gucci purses to enable them to continue their education in the US.

As Asian currencies began to falter last fall, students in the US started running to their computers each day to check the exchange rate on the Internet.

They watched as the exchange rate for the South Korean won, for instance, went from 844 to the dollar to 1,586 Jan. 20. Across Asia, the dollar has at least doubled in price, making $20,000 or $30,000 tuition bills twice as expensive as they were just four months ago.

As a result, Asian students are scurrying to save. Daniel Tjhie, a senior and a business major at the University of Washington in Seattle, is from Indonesia. He doesn't go to the movies much anymore. At restaurants he orders side dishes, not entrees. Some of his friends have had to leave. Others have rushed to find jobs and roommates to help cover the rent.

Mr. Tjhie, whose parents own a printing company, says he's in better shape than many of his younger friends: He has only two quarters until graduation, and his parents paid the tuition bill before the currency plunged. Indeed, students in their first or second year have the greatest risk of being pulled home.

Tjhie, however, plans to stay. "They're firing people back home," he says. "It would be silly for me to go."

Meanwhile, as president of the Indonesian student group, he persuaded school officials to extend the tuition deadline by one month.

In fact, many schools are working with Asian students to bridge the gap. Harvard College in Cambridge, Mass., extended the tuition deadline until spring.

Schools see the effort to help Asian students as worthwhile - culturally and financially.

"These students are the best and brightest from their countries," says Gary Ausman, director of the Office of International Service at the University of Washington. Summing up the contribution of students from abroad, he says, "Classes are so much more dynamic with their presence. They help remind Americans that we're not the center of the universe - plus they bring in a few bucks." He has seen the Korean student population drop from 248 to 214 in the past two months - a trend that worries him.

Sacrificing for 'the pearl'

Many Asians, for their part, see an American education as a pearl of great price - and they're apparently willing to sacrifice to have it.

"Education is not something that can be put off," says Paul Greene, director of international undergraduate admissions at Boston University. "Americans tend to think of the individual student as being empowered by a degree, but in Asia the entire family has an interest in seeing the student succeed," he says. "For the good of the family, it would be very difficult not to send a student."

Indeed, many Asians see education as the key to recovering from the current economic crisis at home - and to continued long-term growth.

As a result, many schools in the US aren't expecting a long-term drop-off in Asian enrollment. Boston University - with 4,657 international students, the most in the nation - says it hasn't seen a lull in overseas applications.

Meanwhile, at Duke University's Divinity School in Durham, N.C., Jong Ho Kim has forsworn buying CDs and has taken a clerical job at the school to protect his education. "Human resources are the best way to develop a country," says the determined South Korean student.

It is this spirit of gritty forbearance that Han, the English student at Boston University, will take with him to try to improve his country's economy.

"We Koreans," he says, slapping his fist into his palm, "we are going to solve the problem."

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