The number of foreign students enrolled in U.S. colleges surged 7 percent last year to 623,805, an all-time high and the largest one-year increase on record. It is the strongest sign yet that post-9/11 declines are history.
Enrollments of foreign undergraduate and graduate students just starting to pursue their degree are rising even faster — 10.1 percent last year — suggesting growth will continue, says the report, issued Monday by the non-profit Institute of International Education, which tracks international education trends for the U.S. State Department.
“These numbers are truly historic,” says Goli Ameri, assistant secretary of State for educational and cultural affairs. “We haven’t just covered lost ground … we have now surpassed” previous records.
The total number for the 2007-08 academic year is 6 percent above the previous high, set in 2002-03. While enrollments reached 586,323 that year, they were up just 0.6 percent over 2001-02. Enrollments declined slightly for the next three years, then rebounded in 2006-07 when enrollments increased 3.2 percent.
Institute president Allan Goodman credits the turnaround primarily to efforts by the U.S. government and colleges in recent years “to ensure that international students know they are welcome here.”
Much of the dropoff was blamed on lingering concerns about visa delays and denials, and continued tension between the United States and much of the world. Between 2000 and 2006, the global share of international students in U.S. institutions dropped from 25 percent to 20 percent, says the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
The State Department has responded with efforts including an expanded network of advisers worldwide and a more streamlined visa application process.
A survey in October of 778 colleges and universities suggests another potential factor: Of 432 schools that said international enrollments are up this fall, 19 percent said the weak U.S. dollar made tuition costs more attractive. That survey was conducted by the institute and seven national higher education organizations.
In addition to the cultural and educational assets such students bring to U.S. campuses, the report says, they also contribute about $15.5 billion to the economy. About 62 percent pay their own way, it says; U.S. universities are the main funding source for 25.9 percent, mostly grad students in science, math and engineering.
Immigration researcher David North calls the financial benefit “a phony argument” based on flawed methodology. His research, based in part on National Academy of Sciences data, suggests that the institute’s annual reports understate how much U.S. higher education spends on foreign graduate students.
In 2006, U.S. universities were the primary source of graduate-level financial aid for 90.7 percent of foreign students, compared with 64 percent of U.S. citizens. He argues that the presence of foreign graduate students is lowering wages for all students in grad programs.
“That, in turn, discourages Americans (from going) into some of these fields,” North says.
Goodman disagrees. “We just don’t have enough Americans going into science, math and engineering, and the foreign graduate student often is the teaching assistant we badly need,” he says. “We want them because one of them is going to cure cancer or invent the vaccine for HIV.”