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Report: Foreign student enrollment at an all-time high

Zorammawii Ralte, from India, is a masters student

Zorammawii Ralte, from India, is a masters student at Stony Brook University. Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

International students studying at U.S. colleges and universities increased by 8 percent in 2008-09, the largest percentage increase in foreign student enrollment since 1980-81, according to a report released Monday.

The 2009 Open Doors Report on International Education, based on a survey of 3,000 accredited colleges and universities, found 671,616 international students were studying in the U.S. - an "all-time high" - with those from India (103,260), China (98,510) and South Korea (75,065) leading the way.

This was the third consecutive year of "significant growth" in international students, the report said.

"There are two big drivers," said Allan Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education, which published the annual report. "One is the American higher-education system itself. It's open, merit-based and very diverse," Goodman said, with far more accredited colleges of quality than anywhere else.

The other factor, he said, is demographic, with burgeoning numbers of young people worldwide who can't be accommodated by their home countries' higher-education systems.

"America benefits from tapping the best and brightest students from all over the world," Goodman said. And, he said, it's a good way for the U.S. to make "friends all over the world."

Many students bring an expertise "we don't have," added Peggy Blumenthal, the institute's chief operating officer. She said the "pipeline of American students in science and technology is not filled. We need to work on that."

The institute's "snapshot" survey of some 700 colleges for fall 2009 found 50 percent reporting increases in international students, down from 57 percent in 2008-09.The increase in international students comes after declines earlier in the decade, said Blumenthal, who cited the tightening of student visas after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Since then, Blumenthal said the visa process has become more "regularized," and colleges have been more "proactive" in attracting international students.

Stony Brook University is among them. It has 2,922 international students this fall, 150 more than last year, among its 23,000 students overall.

"In the last four or five years, our undergraduate admissions area has been doing more active recruiting overseas," said Elizabeth Barnum, assistant dean for international services. "Previously, it was all by word-of-mouth."

Barnum said the campus benefits include expanded diversity and added tuition revenue. The broader region benefits as well, she said. "Every student has to find a place to live, buy food, clothing. Many buy automobiles and cell phones. A lot of incidental expenses add up to serious economic impact on the state in a positive way."

The report said international students pumped $17.8 billion into the U.S. economy.

New York State, with 74,934 international students, trails only California, with 93,124.

Zorammawii Ralte, 22, a graduate student at Stony Brook, is from Mizoram, India. But as a child of an Indian diplomat who traveled the world with his family, she said she got an early taste of American education - her family lived in Virginia for three years starting when she was 7 - and liked it.

"I think I always wanted to study, pursue my higher education in the United States," said Ralte, who received her bachelor's degree from Stony Brook in May and is now pursuing a master's in public policy. She said she left an Indian university, where she felt "stifled."

"There's more openness of the educational system here," Ralte said. "There are lots of ways you can put into practice what you're learning."

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