When Madjid Niroumand was flipping through a book on California colleges a few years back, one entry particularly interested him: Orange Coast College.
The native Iranian then living in Norway was interested in film studies, and the Costa Mesa college fit the bill. Now two years later, he is well on his way to a certificate in film and is thinking of transferring to the University of California at Los Angeles.
Twenty years ago, Mr. Niroumand would have been an anomaly at this sun-drenched college on the southern California coast. But today, he is just the kind of applicant many colleges and universities are looking for as foreign students become a more important part of campus life across the United States.
Overseas students account for only 3 percent of the total US student population, but their intellectual and economic impact have made them an eagerly sought commodity. More and more, colleges are scouring every continent but Antarctica for students to add to their cultural diversity and coffers. And emerging as the front-runners in this rush for students from abroad are, perhaps surprisingly, community colleges like Orange Coast.
Although the overall number of foreign students entering US colleges has been stagnant for the past three years, the current data "suggest ... that there is a jump in international student enrollment in two-year community colleges," says Todd Davis, director of research for the Institute for International Education in New York.
At Orange Coast College, for example, the number of foreign students has jumped from 34 to 815 in 13 years.
A symbiotic relationship
The relationship has benefited both parties. Most community colleges get higher tuitions from out-of-state and foreign students, helping their bottom lines. At Orange Coast, a California resident pays $13 per credit while foreign and out-of-state students pay $139 - making up for the state money that subsidizes in-state students' tuition. Yet the price of a community-college education is a relative bargain, says Saeeda Wali Mohammed, director of the college's International Center.
"The majority of our Asian students are funded by their families. Parents work very hard, and one child gets the privilege of going abroad. It's much more palatable when you have to pay [only] $12,000 per year as opposed to $25,000 to $30,000."
But cost isn't the only attraction. Community colleges give students opportunities to improve their English-language skills and adapt to the American educational system, Ms. Wali Mohammed says. The traditional community-college emphasis on the practical over the theoretical appeals to students seeking achievement certificates in specific fields. The schools also are noted for their flexibility in tailoring nondegree programs to meet business and industry needs.
And foreign students come for the strength of the schools. They have sought out US colleges and universities for decades, lured by the world's best research laboratories, the best libraries, and an educational system more flexible, responsive, and open than that in their homelands.
These attractions still bring overseas students to the nation's larger universities as well. Indeed, large, research universities such as Boston University and the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, have made it a point to keep up their international student population.
BU, which has the nation's largest population of international students, maintains liaison offices in London; Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Karachi, Pakistan; Taipei, Taiwan; Bangkok; Hong Kong; and Tokyo. It sends admissions staff to overseas college fairs and relies on its alumni.
USC depends most on its alumni, mining its thousands of scattered graduates to bring in the foreign students that are a key part of the school's mission.
"The best way to look at it is that everywhere in the marketplace you see the impact of foreign trade in everyday life," says Dixon Johnson, executive director of the Office of International Studies at USC. "In the same way we realized that to compete in that market our students have to be globally competent.... Additionally, international education is an invisible export. The overwhelming majority of foreign students are paying their own way."
Their financial impact can be enormous. The US government requires that foreign students provide proof of their ability to pay for their education before it issues a visa, and the Department of Commerce estimates that foreign students contribute some $7 billion yearly to the economy in tuition, fees, and living expenses.
More than just money
But many educators say financial incentives are not the only reason - or even the primary reason - for looking abroad.
"It's more than just the dollars," says Jeanne-Marie Duval, associate executive director of the National Association for Foreign Student Affairs-Association of International Educators in Washington. Because of the complexities of planning, she says, "You're not going to get into [international education] unless [your school] is really committed to it intellectually and academically, unless it brings a sense of balance to your student population and your academic offerings."
As for Niroumand, he knows that whether his degree comes from Orange Coast or UCLA, he'll have a first-class education he can take into the global job market.
"I don't think Americans know how good we have it," says Robert Frost, director of international studies and programs at Parkland College in Champaign, Ill. "Foreigners know that if they have a degree from an American university, it practically guarantees them a job."