Students from other countries are coming to Long Island colleges in record numbers, a trend that university officials say is helping to meet undergraduate enrollment goals, bring in much-needed tuition dollars and raise the profile of the campuses.
Admissions officers at the Island's colleges with the highest numbers of international students say a steady stream from China, South Korea and India is feeding into the undergraduate base, and local recruiters, in response, are intensifying their efforts in those countries and expanding to South America, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
The changes here are happening in tandem with a major upswing in the percentages of international students nationwide. Students are drawn to the American higher education system for many reasons: the variety of schools, the flexibility to choose from a broad range of courses, and the availability of more scholarships to study abroad, given by their own governments.
Foreign students still make up only 4 percent of the overall national college student population of about 21 million. But with growth over the past decade, their numbers hit a record high of 886,052 in 2013-14, the most recent figures available -- an 8 percent rise over the previous year.
The influx comes at a time when higher education experts say the local college-age population is expected to drop significantly for a variety of reasons, and rising college costs continue to threaten domestic students' ability to pay for four-year institutions.
"As the university has become more nationally recognized, having international students is a compliment," said Herman Berliner, the former longtime provost at Hofstra University, who last year took a recruiting trip to India. "More students from more countries -- it makes for a more cosmopolitan experience for everyone."
Stony Brook a big draw
In addition to Hofstra, Stony Brook University, New York Institute of Technology, Adelphi University and Farmingdale State College are driving the trend on Long Island.
The Institute of International Education, a Manhattan-based organization, publishes an annual report called "Open Doors" in partnership with the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
Data from the institute's 2014 report show:
Stony Brook University ranks fifth in the state in the number of foreign students, who now make up more than 13 percent of the university's 16,840 undergraduate enrollment. When graduate students are included, that figure rises to 19.6 percent of overall enrollment of 24,199.
The percentage of international students enrolled at Hofstra more than quadrupled over the five academic years beginning in 2008-09. During that same period, Adelphi's and Farmingdale State College's percentages doubled.
International student enrollment at New York Institute of Technology's Old Westbury campus has been consistent and growing for more than a decade. In 2013-14, international enrollment was 21 percent, about 1,650 students.
In New York, there were 98,906 such students, a 12.1 percent rise over the previous year and growing faster than the nation as a whole.
Nearly all of the international students pay full tuition, according to college administrators and the students. Their estimated economic impact to the United States was $27 billion in the 2013-14 academic year, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Commerce, which includes tuition, and living and travel expenses.
Officials at the Island's universities and colleges admit that foreign students are critically important at a time when the institutions face more competition for a dwindling number of students.
Many school districts in the Northeast, because of a decline in the birthrate, anticipate fewer high school graduates. Additionally, colleges in the South and West are attracting more students from the region, higher education experts have said.
"There are other good reasons to recruit international students. They are just outstanding students," said W. Hubert Keen, chairman of the Long Island Regional Advisory Council on Higher Education and president of Farmingdale State College. "But certainly enrollment and tuition dollars are not insignificant factors."
The number of students coming to the United States for college will continue to grow and quickly top 1 million over the next few years, higher education experts said. The United States hosts more of the world's college students than anywhere else -- more than double the number who go to schools in the United Kingdom, which is second.
In the past 15 years, the number of international students studying in this country has jumped 72 percent. There was a slight drop in the five years following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
There were more than 10 times as many Saudi students, 7 1/2 times as many Vietnamese students, five times as many Chinese students and almost 2 1/2 times as many Indian students enrolled in U.S. colleges in 2014 than there were in 2000, according to the "Open Doors" report.
In 2014, New York University had 11,164 foreign enrollees, more than any other school in the country and beating out the University of Southern California, which had held the No. 1 spot for 12 years.
NY enrollment jumps 12%
As for New York State, the number of international students last year totaled 98,906 -- up more than 12 percent from the previous year -- with Columbia University, University at Buffalo and Cornell University as the most popular schools.
Critics of the recruitment of international students have expressed concern that the practice is lessening domestic students' chances of getting into universities. Nationally, some public university systems are capping the number of out-of-state students they accept.
Gary Bergman, founder of College Study US, an international student recruitment agency based in Huntington, said local and regional colleges, in general, are enrolling foreign students in academic programs that are not attracting enough domestic students.
"You will hear from some people that international students are taking spots away from domestic students -- but that's not true," said Bergman, who spent 30 years as a senior college administrator, including decades in two admissions departments on Long Island. "We would never go after the international students if we were filling programs like engineering and computer science with domestic students."
Several Long Island schools are benefiting from the influx of international students, experts and students said.
"The word that New York is a destination for students is out there," said Allan Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to advance international education. "And you probably have a greater density of college presidents in the New York area who are saying they want international students."
Students often cite the job and internship opportunities in the metropolitan area as draws. The availability of ethnic restaurants and shops helps to curb homesickness -- a huge factor when it comes to student retention and completion rates, experts said.
Vikrant Sood, 21, attended the University of Delhi in his native India for one year before he knew he wanted to transfer to a college in the United States. He decided to enroll in NYIT's engineering school after visiting an uncle in Hicksville.
"I fell in love with the American way of education," said Sood, who is from the city of Phagwara in the country's northern Punjab state. "There is so much moral policing in college in India. Here, there's so much independence and freedom."
For most international students, Sood said, there aren't as many options in their own countries and studying "a little bit of everything" isn't the norm. At NYIT, he works on campus, does research and is involved in clubs in addition to his studies.
"I went to what was called the best college in India, and I was still never able to do research, no matter how hard I tried," he said.
Alumni networks help
Long Island's college admissions officers, recognizing the unmet demand globally for higher education, are gaining reputations overseas through strong ties with foreign alumni networks, college consultants and other academic partners, as well as government-sponsored exchange programs.
John Deupree, executive director of the nonprofit American International Recruitment Council, said "middle-range" colleges and universities are more often the ones seeking to increase their international populations.
"Some of the lesser-known colleges are having trouble attracting domestic students, so they are looking abroad," said Deupree, whose organization accredits international recruiting companies.
It is easier than ever, through social media, for a college to reach students thousands of miles away. Current students are unofficial ambassadors and help spread the word of their experience here both in person and virtually, admissions officers said.
At least one local university, Hofstra, has a webcast of its Hempstead campus graduation ceremony translated in Chinese and available to family and friends overseas.
Isuri Wijesundara, 20, from Sri Lanka, said she was "adamant about going to college in America" after participating in a summer scholars program that gave her the opportunity to tour New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., in 2012. She took a year to apply to U.S. schools after graduating from a private high school in her country.
"I basically Googled all of the colleges in the U.S. for theater," said Wijesundara, who just completed her freshman year at Adelphi.
Foreign governments' role
Foreign governments are investing heavily in sending their students to schools in the United States, too.
"What you see internationally is that there are hot spots for recruiting. These are known by the U.S. institutions," said Ronald Maggiore, vice president of enrollment at NYIT, who expects foreign student enrollment on the Old Westbury campus to top 40 percent within the next few years.
The college degree is a U.S. export, said Maggiore, hired last year at NYIT to boost the school's international numbers.
"A lot of that interest is motivated by the local economies and local governments in those countries. They are building infrastructure and they need a sophisticated workforce, so they come to the United States to essentially import that intelligence," he said.
Maggiore said if new dorms are built on the campus -- a project that would add about 700 beds -- recruiting overseas would get even easier.
"It's a public diplomacy program," said Meghann Curtis, deputy assistant secretary of state for academic programs in the Bureau for Educational and Cultural Affairs, part of the U.S. State Department, which partners with the creators of the "Open Doors" report.
In her role, Curtis oversees the department's EducationUSA program, a network of more than 400 advising centers in 170 countries where some 7.7 million international students find information on how to apply to accredited U.S. colleges and universities.
The advising centers are located in U.S. embassies and consulates, or in a variety of partner institutions, cultural centers, U.S. and foreign nongovernmental organizations, universities and libraries.
A new openness in China, driven by its economic needs and an expanding middle class, as well as the investments by the governments of other countries, has been a driving force in bringing more students here. Although China is increasing its higher education offerings, colleges there still don't come close to meeting the demand from students.
Many Chinese students, experts said, are prompted to look for U.S. colleges in July after they've gotten the results of the extremely competitive gaokao, the countrywide college entrance exam. Some, students say, apply to American colleges so they do not have to take the gaokao.
Experts and some college officials have noted that the tuition dollars the foreign undergraduates pay offset the institutions' financial losses in other areas -- such as trims of state aid at public colleges and the steep discounting of tuition at many private ones.
International students are not eligible for state and federal financial aid, though some may receive merit scholarships and grants.
Their cost to attend state institutions such as Stony Brook and Farmingdale can be more than double that of an in-state student. For example, at Stony Brook, in-state tuition was $6,470 and out-of-state tuition was $21,550 for the 2014-15 academic year. That does not include other fees, or the costs of housing and meal plans.
At the private schools, they pay the entire "sticker" price, which at Hofstra was $38,900 and at Adelphi was $32,340 for the same school year.
International students have a "definite impact on the economy, especially on the local level," said Rachel Banks, director of public policy for NAFSA: Association of International Educators.
"They are spending money in the local community," she said. "They aren't only supporting the educational institution but also the surrounding area. They need health care; they need a place to live; they need furniture."
While China and South Korea are the most reliable pool of international students, admissions officers said they are looking to build relationships and programs in other countries. Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Turkey and the countries of the former Soviet Union are relatively new places from which to recruit students, college officials said.
They are aiming for diversity on their campus but, from an enrollment standpoint, there's too much risk in relying on one country or region of the world.
A major financial meltdown, a national security risk or an infectious disease epidemic could be a huge blow to admissions, local college admissions officers said.
Often, the educational ministries in the students' home countries will offer incentives and scholarships for top high school students to go abroad.
For example, the King Abdullah Scholarships Program, started in 2006, has brought about 10,000 Saudis to U.S. colleges each year. The scholarship pays for tuition and living expenses and provides for a small stipend.
In addition to print material on various U.S. schools, advisers at the EducationUSA centers reach prospective students through social media and webinars, and by hosting college fairs.
While the most inquiries come from Asia, Curtis said they also are trying to expand their reach into countries where few students ever come to the U.S. for college, such as sub-Saharan Africa.
"Our strategy isn't just to pitch this opportunity in areas where there's high demand," Curtis said. "The objective is to break down barriers of trust and understanding and try to create people relationships in countries where we don't have great foreign relations."
Still, there's nothing that can fully replace a university official's boots on the ground in building a brand globally, said Matt Whelan, vice president for strategic initiatives at Stony Brook University.
He recalled the validation of an experience two years ago, when he was more than 7,000 miles from the admissions office on Long Island, carrying a tote bag emblazoned with the university's logo.
"I was on my way to the taxi stand at the Beijing airport and a guy came up to me, recognizing the name," said Whelan, then provost of enrollment and retention at the university. "I was pleasantly shocked. I gave it to him. He seemed so thrilled to have something that said 'Stony Brook.' "