Record number of Chinese students flock to US colleges

The recession meant fewer Americans went abroad to study last year, and some countries sent fewer students to US colleges. But the number of Chinese students in the US increased by 30 percent.

Jay LaPrete/AP/file
Ohio State University students Siyi Chen (l.) and Xiaoli Liu, pictured here in 2008, were two of Ohio State's 115 first-year undergraduate students from China. Universities are reporting record enrollments of Chinese students because of aggressive recruiting combined with China's strong economy and growing middle class.

The recession is affecting some American and foreign students’ plans to study abroad – but not, apparently, those of the Chinese.

Last year, nearly 130,000 Chinese students studied in the US – a record number, and a 30 percent increase from the year before.

That Chinese desire for a US education also helped drive an overall increase in foreign students studying here, resulting in a record high of 690,923, despite declines from many countries, according to the Institute of International Education’s (IIE) annual Open Doors report, released Monday.

“There’s a growing middle class in China … that wants to find the best education for their children, and they have a lot of resources to pour into their one child,” says Peggy Blumenthal, executive vice president of the IIE. In many cases, she adds, multinational corporations in China are finding that the most effective employees are those who got a US education.

Every year, the Open Doors report provides a snapshot of foreign study – both students coming to the US and US students heading abroad. Among the interesting nuggets this year:

  • For the first time in the 25 years that data has been tracked, the number of American students studying abroad fell slightly, down 0.8 percent to 260,327 – a decline attributable mostly to the recession, and one that Ms. Blumenthal says has already started to turn around, based on preliminary numbers.
  • The top destinations for US students remain the same – Great Britain, Italy, and Spain – but those countries are declining in popularity as more students head to less traditional destinations. Peru, South Korea, and Chile saw the biggest increases. Others hosting more American students include China, Argentina, South Africa, Denmark, and the Czech Republic. US students are also studying a more diverse range of fields abroad, notes Blumenthal – so public health students may head to South Africa, or environmental studies students to Costa Rica – encouraging a broader array of destinations.
  • Together, the top five countries sending students to the US – China, India, South Korea, Canada, and Taiwan – account for more than half of all foreign students studying here.
  • For the most part, foreign students in the US study business and management or engineering; those two fields account for almost 40 percent of all the foreign students.
  • The institutions hosting the largest number of foreign students (all with more than 7,000) are the University of Southern California, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and New York University.

Foreign students represent an important piece of the US economy, notes Allan Goodman, president of the IIE. About two-thirds of them pay their own way, which translates to about $20 billion a year. “Those students may support more than 100,000 jobs right here in America,” he says, noting that the Commerce Department regards it as an export service.

That may be one reason some states are making a concerted effort to attract more foreign students. California, New York, and Texas still host the largest numbers of foreign students, but several Midwestern statesIllinois, Ohio, and Indiana – all made a big effort to reach out to foreign students and saw sizable increases.

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