Chinese Students Lead Foreign Surge at U.S. Colleges

Posted: December 2, 2014 in Society and Culture

SOURCE: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/01/education/chinese-students-lead-foreign-surge-at-us-colleges.html?_r=1

SEE ALSO: Chinese Students Attend Private U.S. High Schools

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Haoyu Yang, 20, is from Dalian, China, and attends Michigan State University. The Chinese students in the United States are now younger than they were a decade ago. Credit Susan Tusa

American campuses have never been more international.

In 2013-14, colleges in the United States enrolled a record 886,052 foreign students, an increase of 8 percent over the previous year, according to the latest “Open Doors” report from the Institute of International Education.

China remains the dynamo of global-student mobility, at times driving up international enrollments all by itself. In 2013-14, Chinese students accounted for almost 60 percent of the foreign-student growth at American colleges. Think about it this way: One of every three international students in the United States holds a Chinese passport.

Never in the institute’s nearly 65 years of tracking foreign-student trends has a single source country been so dominant.

Such a high proportion of students from a single country has raised alarms about the fallout if the current boom were to go bust.

But setting such concerns aside, it is worth noting that the demographics of the Chinese-student population in the United States are changing. For one, the students are getting younger. A decade ago, more than 80 percent of the Chinese students in the United States were at the graduate level. Today the split between undergraduate and graduate students is nearly 50-50.

That shift is due in part to an explosion in undergraduate enrollment, as well as to slowing growth at the graduate level. For the first time, the Council of Graduate Schools reports that graduate enrollments from China fell this fall. What’s more, there are signs that the population may growing even younger — some 23,500 Chinese citizens are enrolled in American high schools.

Shi Wang, who goes by Shiny, is head of counseling at the international division of Beijing No. 4 High School. He thinks that as dissatisfaction mounts with China’s test-centric educational system, more Chinese students could go abroad — and at a younger age — to position themselves for admission to top American colleges.

If greater numbers of Chinese students come to the United States for high school, that could change international admissions for American colleges, essentially allowing them to do foreign recruitment at home. It could also mitigate what has been a major issue for American colleges amid the China surge: helping Chinese students adjust culturally and academically to campus life.

Until the China wave began breaking on American shores, India was the largest source of international students. For the past three years, however, Indian enrollments have declined. The newest figures show a halt to the slide. The number of students from India, which remains the second-largest source country, is up 6 percent.

The rupee may be a reason for the rebound because it is regaining value against foreign currencies, making overseas study affordable once again. Britain, historically a top destination for students from India, has fallen in popularity. And American colleges may be getting better at recruiting in this diverse, complex country.

Bryant O. Priester, assistant director for international undergraduate recruitment at Purdue University, which ranks fifth among American universities for the size of its international population, has focused on attracting Indian students who will enroll and do well there, not merely on greater numbers of applicants. One strategy to achieve this goal is attending college fairs with local alumni who can share their experiences firsthand.

Mr. Priester is also among recruiters now looking outside India for top Indian students. He recently returned from a recruitment trip to the Middle East, where he met with some of the growing number of Indians who study at universities in the region or whose families work there.

A look at the three countries that had the largest percentage growth in international students point to a trend: Kuwait (43 percent), Brazil (22 percent), and Saudi Arabia (21 percent) all have major government-sponsored scholarship programs to send students abroad.

Although students from the three countries make up a relatively small share of the overall international population (Saudi Arabia has the largest, at a little more than 6 percent), these nations are an increasingly important recruitment market for American colleges, in no small measure because they pay their students’ way.

Eighty-six percent of the Saudi students who study abroad and 68 percent of the Kuwaitis go to the United States. Just under half of the Brazilians do.

The fast-growing group of student-visa holders are not seeking bachelor’s degrees or Ph.D.’s. They are not learning to speak in English. In fact, they are not actually studying at all.

They are part of Optional Practical Training, a program that allows international students to temporarily stay and work in the United States after graduation.

More than one in 10 international students takes part in OPT, as the program is known, up 12 percent, the fourth consecutive annual increase. Part of the growth is simply a result of the boom in international students, said Rajika Bhandari, deputy vice president for research and evaluation at the Institute of International Education. OPT is popular with foreign graduates whose employment options are limited during their studies and seize the opportunity to gain work experience for the job market when they return home.

The program is popular with some employers as well. Having fallen short in efforts to change visa rules to make it easier for foreign graduates to stay in the United States, the Obama administration has extended the time that students in high-demand science and technology fields can remain in the country in OPT, from 12 to 29 months.

Compared with the robust growth in international enrollments, participation in study abroad by American students appears sluggish. The number of students going overseas inched up by just 2 percent in 2012-13. As a share of the overall American college population, their numbers remain stubbornly tiny.

Small but meaningful shifts, however, are noticeable in terms of which students go abroad and what they study. Over the past decade, the share of nonwhite students going abroad has crept upward to about one-quarter of the total. And for the first time this year, more students going abroad are studying science, math or engineering than the social sciences.

However, the figures suggest that getting more students in the so-called STEM fields overseas does little to reverse the longtime trend of low male participation in education abroad. Over the past 10 years, in fact, men are the only “minority” group in the “Open Doors” report to actually decrease their rate of international study.

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