The University of Iowa

International Enrollments at U.S. Colleges Grow but Still Rely on China

November 15th, 2011

By Beth McMurtrie, The Chronicle of Higher Education Read the full article here

The number of international students enrolling in American colleges and universities grew at a faster clip in 2010 than a year earlier, reaching an all-time high of 723,277. But the growth was heavily reliant on two countries: China and Saudi Arabia, according to data released this week by the Institute of International Education.

The explosion of interest among Chinese students continued unabated, with numbers rising more than 23 percent—the fourth year of double-digit increases. Meanwhile, Saudi students, while coming in much smaller numbers, benefited from generous government scholarships, expanding their presence by 44 percent.

In all, the numbers of foreign students in the U.S. grew by nearly 5 percent, compared with 3 percent a year earlier. The number of first-time students, perhaps a more critical measure of international interest, grew nearly 6 percent compared with 2009′s troubling 1-percent increase.

Other surveys that focused on fall 2011 enrollments suggest growth rates the same or higher this year compared with last. The Council of Graduate Schools, for example, reported an 8-percent increase in new graduate students this fall, up from 3 percent last fall.

Yet the institute’s annual “Open Doors” data paint a mixed picture for the United States. While the fall of 2009 marked a low point after several years of strong growth, 2010′s healthier showing does not match that of the boom years of 2007 and 2008.

Enrollments in bachelor’s-degree programs grew at a brisk 7 percent, driven in large part by China: The numbers of Chinese undergraduates coming to the United States rose 43 percent, to 57,000 students. (See related article, Page A20.) Meanwhile total graduate enrollments grew less than 1 percent, reflecting the continued global recession as well as declines by some graduate programs in their ability to offer stipends. Enrollments in associate-degree programs grew a respectable 4 percent, reversing a decline in 2009.

Of the top 10 countries sending students to the United States, five saw growth and five saw declines. In addition to the increases in students from China and Saudi Arabia, Vietnam’s numbers—although relatively small—grew 14 percent. Mexico and South Korea grew at a more modest 2 percent each.

Among the countries in decline, India remains of most concern to colleges, as it sends the largest number of students to the United States after China. Although total enrollments from India dropped only 1 percent, those figures were propped up by a heavy use of Optional Practical Training, a program through which graduates can stay on and work temporarily. The number of Indian students in the program grew 26 percent. The number pursuing undergraduate degrees declined by 8 percent, and those pursuing graduate degrees declined by 7 percent.

Japan continued its precipitous slide, falling 14 percent, and Turkey and Canada both fell 2 percent.
How Much Is Too Much?

Yet, some educators say, the fact that the United States remains the top choice for many students, particularly students of means, suggests that the system’s academic strength is intact.

“Every decade there are one or two countries driving the numbers,” says Peggy Blumenthal, senior counselor to the president of the Institute of International Education. In the 70s, it was Iran, and in the 90s, Japan and other parts of Asia dominated.

For the next decade, says Ms. Blumenthal, Vietnam, Turkey, Indonesia, and Brazil are among the places to watch.

“If China and Saudi Arabia disappear in 10 years—and I don’t think they will—these are the countries that will be able to produce a large increase in numbers,” she says.

Others are less sanguine.

“We are so tied into the Chinese economy in so many ways that if something were to happen in China, we’d all be feeling the impact,” says Scott E. King, assistant dean of international programs at the University of Iowa, where more than 1,245 of the 1,734 international undergraduates are from China. The university, like many others, is beginning to ask itself, How much is too much?

The rate of growth of Chinese enrollments actually slowed slightly in 2010, down from a 30-percent increase in 2009. The actual numbers of new Chinese students increased slightly, though, to 29,930.

English-language-program enrollments surged by 14 percent after falling the year before. But, again, much of that growth was driven by China and Saudi Arabia, says Mark W. Harris, president of ELS Educational Services, a major language-instruction provider.

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