Foreign students trickling back to US

A modest rise in new enrollees from abroad begins to stem the post-9/11 drop-off, a report finds.

Karian Antoine, an elementary school teacher from the Caribbean island nation of St. Lucia, had long wanted to go beyond her two-year college degree. But the idea of furthering her education in the United States had never attracted her – especially, she says, after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Now, though, the Grade 4 teacher at a Catholic school for boys is working her way toward a degree from Virginia's Lynchburg College. She enrolled in Lynchburg's program to train special-education teachers, which the college set up in St. Lucia, and is now one of 23 foreign students at the small liberal arts school.

Antoine is part of a modest rise in the number of new foreign students in the US, the first increase after several years of declines after the 9/11 attacks. While educators hope it signals a return to America's status as a magnet for international education, they acknowledge that getting more students like Antoine to study in the US will take a more coordinated effort from the government and higher-ed institutions.

With just under 565,000 foreign students, the US remains the world's most popular destination for students looking to further their education in another country. But that number is still below the high point of 584,000 foreign students set in 2002-03. US government efforts to streamline the visa process for foreign students, after a post-9/11 tightening of access, is one factor in a return to a rising number in the 2005-06 school year, experts say.

But a global market for foreign students means that American colleges and universities face more competition today – in particular from countries like Britain, Australia, and Japan.

"The fact is that we are in a different place now in the international student market," says Victor Johnson, public policy director for the Association of International Educators in Washington. "Competition from other countries has increased, which means the US is actually getting a smaller share of the market."

The hotter competition helps explain why Education Secretary Margaret Spellings is in China, Korea, and Japan this week with a group of university presidents – a first-of-its-kind mission – to tout the virtues of American higher education.

One reason to fire up more foreigners about US study: their impact on the economy. International students pumped about $13.5 billion into the economy last year, notes the Institute of International Education, whose annual "Open Doors" survey this week reported the increase in foreigners studying in the US. That makes higher education the fifth-highest service-sector export, according to the Department of Commerce.

As important as that is, officials say a broader national interest – one driven home by 9/11 – is the international understanding they believe results from international education. "The amount of money international students spend here is astounding, but [beyond that] are the benefits of increased contact ... between Americans and people [elsewhere]," says Paul Hiemstra, director of global education programs at the State Department. "Those direct contacts counter the stereotypes and misperceptions."

As part of an expanded effort to improve America's image abroad, the State Department is putting more emphasis on international exchanges in both directions, all under the stewardship of presidential adviser Karen Hughes. The effort includes streamlining the student visa process, making more information available to prospective students, and increasing contacts between US institutions of higher education and foreign governments, Mr. Hiemstra says.

These efforts are explained by a growing realization that the advent of a globalized world has forever changed the role of international education, experts say. "Higher education is beginning to say that without the international dimension, you just aren't educated," says Allan Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education.

New international realities will keep expanding the two-way street of international education, with high growth in the US, Mr. Goodman says. A separate survey showed the number of Americans studying abroad grew 8 percent last year, to more than 200,000. Forecasts anticipate that the number of students going outside their own country for part of their education will grow from 2.5 million today to 7 million in five to six years.

The International Educators' Mr. Johnson says the US share of that pie will grow only if the US learns from its international competitors and develops a public-private marketing plan.

Some American schools are already making such efforts. Yerlan Shildibekov, one of 30 Kazakhstani students at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, is benefiting from an agreement between his new school and Kazakhstan's government. He has a government scholarship but also financial benefits from RIT.

The anticipated outcome? "In a year I'll go home with a master's in electrical engineering," Mr. Shildibekov says. "But I'm living here with American roommates, so I hope to increase the understanding between America and my country."

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