Beyond China: US colleges look afield for foreign students

As a surge of students from China begins to level off, many U.S. colleges are expanding recruiting efforts in the Middle East, South Asia and Latin America in part to boost budgets that have come to rely on tuition dollars from international students.

The number of Chinese students at U.S. colleges rose from 62,000 a decade ago to 328,000 last year, and they still make up 31 percent of all international students in the U.S., but growth is slowing. On Monday, the Institute of International Education released federal data showing that the number of Chinese students at U.S. colleges grew by 8 percent last year, the smallest uptick since 2005.

Some schools are bracing for a decline, citing China’s sluggish economy and sharper competition from colleges in Australia and other countries.

“For a variety of factors, we’re seeing a slowdown in Chinese enrollment,” said Todd Maurer, a California analyst who advises schools and education companies on trends in Asia. “I think we’re seeing the last years of double-digit growth.”

Colleges seek international students partly to boost diversity, but they also bring a financial perk. Most schools don’t offer scholarships for international students, and charge them full tuition costs. Losing foreign students could hurt college budgets, especially at a time when some public universities are struggling with long-term drops in state funding.

Stephen Dunnett, vice provost for international education at the University at Buffalo, said many colleges worry they depend too heavily on revenue from Chinese students.

“They would be severely hurt if there was a contraction,” he said. “There’s no Plan B. There’s no other country that would send students in those numbers.”

Buffalo is among many universities that have expanded global recruiting efforts in part to hedge against a possible decline from China. Along with continued work in China, Dunnett’s office has turned its attention to growing countries such as Vietnam and Burma. Next year, the college plans to recruit in Iran for the first time.

This year, the University of Massachusetts Amherst made its first recruiting trip to Mexico and also bolstered its work in Singapore and Vietnam. Instead of sending recruiters to China this year, Bucknell University in Pennsylvania focused on India and sent admissions officials to South America for the first time in about a decade.

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