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US colleges regain luster for foreigners

After a post-9/11 drop-off, the State Department has taken steps to ease foreigners' concerns.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 19, 2008


After being scared off in the post-9/11 years by tightened visa restrictions and America's soured image, foreign students are flocking back to the United States in record numbers.

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At the same time, the number of American university students fitting in at least a semester abroad continues to climb: A still small but growing portion of the population sees overseas study more as a normal part of a college career than as an exotic exception.

Welcome to the era of globalized higher education.

"The growth in international students coming here is part of a trend of growing numbers of international students worldwide, but it's more than that," says Allan Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education (IIE) in New York. "The State Department has made a real effort to change the perception that getting a student visa is impossible, but the underlying attraction is that nobody has the quantity and quality in higher education that we have," he adds. "It's one thing 'Made in USA' that everybody wants."

The number of foreign students in the US jumped by 7 percent to 623,805 between the 2006-07 and 07-08 academic years, according to the annual "Open Doors" report on international study released this week by the IIE. The previous high, which was 586,323 foreign students, was recorded in the 2002-03 academic year. The IIE also finds that the number of "new" or first-time enrollments of foreign students is growing faster.

That says two things, according to US officials and education experts.

First, the measures taken in response to a drop in foreign-student interest in the US – for example, explaining the US visa process and publicizing US higher-education opportunities – have eased foreigners' concerns. And second, the international cachet of the American university education is buffed and shining once again.

"Clearly American higher education has a phenomenal reputation around the world, but it's been our job in recent years to get the word out that America's door is open and we want foreign students to come here," says Goli Ameri, assistant secretary of State for educational and cultural affairs.

The State Department has opened 450 "Education USA" advising centers at consulates and libraries around the world, and a like-named website provides foreigners with information – and reassurances that the visa process is not the insurmountable hurdle they may have heard about.

"The visa process really has been streamlined and made more predictable and transparent," Ms. Ameri says. "Our Bureau of Consular Affairs has really focused on this."

Certainly the $15 billion a year that foreign students pump into the US economy is one reason for the focus. But other reasons transcend the financial aspects.

"Foreign students enrich our campuses and our country. They bring to our communities parts of our increasingly interdependent world," she says.