US colleges regain luster for foreigners

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

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.

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.

Bernard Londoni is one foreign student who testifies both to the value of an American education and to the new effort US officials are putting into attracting foreign students. "I was interested before I came here, but it was really the 'USA Education' session I attended at an American embassy that convinced me this was possible," says the native of the Democratic Republic of Congo, now a senior at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla.

What sold Mr. Londoni on US higher education was the information he received that at an American liberal-arts college, he could take classes in a wide variety of subjects while earning a degree.

"That was not possible in my country, and in Europe as well, you must stick to your major area of study. But the US offers foreign students the chance to broaden their mind and broaden their knowledge," says Londoni, who was elected Lynn's student-body president last year. "That was very important to me."

The "Open Doors" report finds that the largest portion of foreign students in the US comes from Asia – with India topping the list (for the seventh year in a row). But the report also chronicles a significant increase in students from the Middle East, a region that experienced a particular drop-off in interest in the US after reports of visa denials and anti-Arab discrimination after 9/11.

As for American students, the IIE reports that 241,791 studied abroad in the 2006-07 academic year, up 8 percent over the previous year – and a 150 percent increase over the 99,000 who ventured overseas a decade ago.

Many of the Americans studying abroad exemplify both the attraction of foreign study and some of the factors that still limit the overall numbers. "I'm from a family from Texas, and I'm the first in my family to study abroad, but I also grew up understanding that there is more to the world than what we may know in a five-mile-wide town," says Johanna McCrehan, a senior in architecture at Clemson University in South Carolina.

Her interest in the world was piqued by growing up in suburban Washington, D.C. That curiosity, coupled with Clemson's emphasis on study abroad, led her to spend a semester last year in Barcelona, Ms. McCrehan says. "It really expanded my understanding of other cultures," she says.

Mr. Goodman of the IIE says it's encouraging that more Americans are choosing to study in "nontraditional" regions like Africa. And Ameri of the State Department notes the interest in new programs that offer minority students foreign-study scholarships and that encourage study of languages crucial to national security.

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