Last year, foreign students contributed $18.8 billion to the American economy. How can we grow that figure?

Trade and job creation
Nov. 30 2010 10:14 AM

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Last year, foreign students contributed $18.8 billion to the American economy. How can we grow that figure?

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Even as colleges invest in these labor-intensive resources, they face escalating competition from other countries that have woken up to the potentially huge post-secondary education market. Other English-speaking countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom are prime competitors, although Britain's recent restrictions on student visas, aimed at curbing what the government sees as abuse of the visa system, may give the United States an edge. In light of the burgeoning demand from China and other Asian countries, Australia is marketing itself as a closer-to-home alternative; and South Africa has been steadily growing its enrollment of international students, both from within and beyond the continent's borders.

In the future, education experts predict that more competition will come from the very countries from which we currently draw most of our foreign students. "The pre-eminence of the United States in this domain, while the envy of the world, is not guaranteed to continue," says Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld, professor and dean of the School of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which hosted the second-largest number of foreign students last year, according to IIE data. "States are cutting back on funding for public universities, as other nations build increasing capacity." In countries like China and India, investment in higher education is booming; both nations have plans to build 20 new universities each.

Another puzzle for the higher-education industry is how to spread the wealth. Ivy League schools have no trouble attracting applicants from overseas, and foreign students also embrace some public universities, believing the education to be superior to that available at private colleges. But schools outside that relatively narrow slice face an uphill challenge trying to get on international students' radar. A general lack of awareness is complicated by the fact that in some other countries, students don't apply to a bevy of schools the way they do here, so there's less of an opportunity for American colleges to be a foreign student's second choice or "safety school."

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Despite the decentralized nature of our collegiate system that puts much of the recruitment effort on schools' shoulders, it's not entirely up to them to do the heavy lifting. The International Trade Administration's U.S. Commercial Service division participates in student fairs overseas, and the State Department runs an outreach program called Education USA, which is aimed at foreign students. In contrast with the frustrations experienced by the U.S. tourism industry, the IIE's Goodman says the State Department has been accommodating of foreign students' needs in recent years. "After 9/11, there was a shakeout period, but I think the United States has moved very responsibly to higher education's concerns," he says. "It's now a much more predictable process," he says of the student-visa application process.

Higher education specialists say an influx of international students has benefits beyond the bump they provide to schools' bottom lines. "We're moving toward a global knowledge economy," says Cutcher-Gershenfeld. "Cross-cultural literacy is necessary. As you bridge across cultures, you discover that your basic assumptions aren't the same."

Exposure to viewpoints shaped outside U.S. borders help today's students compete better in an increasingly global workforce. Charles points out that this mélange of different cultural values and backgrounds in the classroom gives professors a great teaching opportunity. "International students bring a kind of diversity to the academic environment that's increasingly necessary," he says. "That's a huge benefit."

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