US sees growth in foreign student enrollment - for now

One way to measure the strength of a nation is look at its gross national product or its military firepower. Another is to see how many foreign students opt to go to school there.

After three years of stagnation, the number of international college students coming to the United States is back up 5.1 percent, according to a report released yesterday by the New York-based Institute of International Education, the leading nonprofit organization on this issue. "For the first time in several years there has been an increase, and everyone expected there to be no increase because of the Asian currency crisis," says IIE president Allan Goodman.

Until this year's "sudden upswing," there had been concern that the US "was losing its competitive edge in the international education market," the report concludes. It also suggests that "the widespread fears of marked enrollment drops due to the consequences of Asian financial turmoil may not come to pass."

But IIE officials caution that their analysis is based on surveys from the 1997-98 school year. More recent indicators suggest that the US may yet have to defend its clout in the rapidly expanding market in global education.

"The world-class quality of American universities is in part that they attract the best and the brightest from other parts of the world. To the extent that students are making other decisions, we need to be concerned," says Peggy Blumenthal, IIE vice president for educational services.

The US has been the No. 1 destination of the world's newly mobile students, ever since transcontinental flight opened up in the 1950s. Last year, the tuition payments and living expenses of nearly half a million international students amounted to $7.5 billion for American universities and colleges.

For some universities and graduate departments, their presence became critical. Most foreign students pay their own way, and by the 1980s, many college administrators were building their budgets around a continuing flow of high-pay students from abroad, says IIE's Goodman. In some science and engineering graduate departments, these students account for more than half the enrollment.

By 1995, the US share of this market had slipped from 40 percent in the 1980s to 30 percent, according to the United Nations. New competitors stepped up incentives and marketing. Australia changed its visa requirements to allow foreign students to stay and work after graduation, for example, and German universities began offering graduate courses in English.

"There is no doubt that the United States has lost its competitive edge as a world leader in international education," said Ted Sanders, president of Southern Illinois University, at the first national conference on this issue on Sept. 24.

In a bid to keep competitive in foreign markets, SIU revised its tuition structure last spring. Instead of paying three times the in-state tuition charge, foreign students now pay only twice the fee. Nonetheless, the number of international students on the Carbondale, Ill., campus still dropped to 1,655 this fall, down from 1,840 last year. "That drop-off from last year is less than predicted and we expect it will bottom out. We've just gotten the word out about our tuition change," says John Haller, vice president for academic affairs at SIU, which recently opened a campus in Japan.

Enrollments of international students are also down at George Washington University in Washington, despite efforts to help cash-strapped Asian students, such as tuition deferment and campus jobs. A report being prepared for next year's IIE survey shows foreign enrollments down 6.5 percent, with the biggest drop-offs in countries hardest hit by the Asian crisis: Enrollments from Thailand are down 33.1 percent; Malaysia, 38.5 percent and Indonesia, 26.3 percent.

"The drop [in foreign students] would have been much larger, except for a really large increase in the number of students coming from China - up 52.7 percent from 112 to 171," says Joachim Knop, assistant director for Institutional Research at George Washington University.

This trend is confirmed by a drop-off of applications for the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), one of the earliest indicators of foreign student interest in US study. Applicants to register for this gateway exam are down 7.3 percent, according to the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J., which administers the exam.

"The Asian crisis has had a significant impact both on students that are here now and those that would come that's not really reflected in the IIE Open Door statistics," says Dorothy Mora, program officer for the United States Information Agency. "Test registrants are down 75 percent in Indonesia."

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