When Singaporean Li Fanglan was shopping for a graduate teaching program abroad, she ended up dismissing US colleges in favor of Curtain University in Perth, Australia, known as "the seventh suburb of Singapore."
"I'd [have] liked to go to the US," Ms. Li says. "But it cost too much."
It's a refrain American schools may be hearing more and more thanks to stiff competition from other English-speaking countries and the ongoing economic crises in Asia (a region that accounts for almost 60 percent of the foreigners studying in the United States).
This could cost the US its lion's share of the lucrative international student market, according to the Institute of International Education (IIE), a New York-based nonprofit group.
The last school year marked nearly a decade of flat growth, with the number of international students in the US increasing just 0.9 percent. That's compared with the study's "glory years" between 1975 and 1980, when enrollments doubled to 300,000. "That doesn't mean that we don't still have an enormous number of foreign students," says IIE's Peggy Blumenthal. "America still receives by far the most foreign students [about 458,000]."
But international students are increasingly choosing other countries over the US, a recent IIE study found. Those students, most of whom pay full tuition, mean big bucks for the economy. Each year, foreign students generate more than $7 billion, making them America's fifth-largest export earner, according to IIE.
In addition to the financial benefits, educators in the US and elsewhere cite intangibles foreign students bring to the classroom. "They internationalize the curriculum," says Karen Shanks, international director at Curtain University, where 15 percent of the school's 24,000 students hail from abroad. Australians, for example, "feel more a part of the Southeast Asian community than in the 1950s."
Ms. Blumenthal attributes the slow US growth to improved educational infrastructure in the countries that traditionally send their students abroad and to increased competition from Britain, Canada, and Australia.
"It's harder for us to change the trends because we don't have a national policy," she says. "Each institution makes its own decision to attract foreign students. The UK, Australia, and Canada have made national decisions ... and can make national investments."
Canada, for example, plans to institute 25 educational centers at its consulates by 2000. Both Britain and Australia offer financial aid to international students.
Australia touts its nearby locale, lower costs, and the ability of foreign students to work part-time. "We're closer to home than the US," says Ms. Shanks. "Mothers come over during exams to cook for their children." But Australia is seeing a drop in visa applications, thanks to the Asian economic crises, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports.
Britain, which has 198,000 international students, has educational counseling services with offices in each of its consuls. Partly funded by the government and partly by membership fees, these offer universities a range of services - from market research to setting up events and exhibitions to help "sell" individual universities overseas.
The impact is not being felt across the board in the US. Boston University - with the largest international enrollment in the US (about 4,600) -sees no decrease. "Our experience with a vast majority of [overseas] students is that they want to come to the US," says Riaz Khan, vice president of external programs.
Boosting the number of foreign students will be up to individual universities, says Blumenthal. "It's really a question of priority. More colleges," she adds, are deciding it's worth it.