A Second Look at International Students in the US

“Internationalization” has become the buzzword on campuses across America.  Universities and colleges in the US have become major destinations for a world thirsting for quality higher education.  American professors want to upgrade their curricula to reflect a commitment to global understanding.  US colleges seem to launch a new campus or program somewhere in the world every day.

I traveled to India and to Qatar in January, with my colleagues from Marks Education, offering workshops at high schools on the US college admission process.  We met hundreds of students eager to study in America.  It is an exciting time for international education, and a great time to be an adventurous student.

But this excitement should not conceal many complexities.  For example, the most recent “Open Doors” study by the Institute of International Education shows that in 2010/11, the number of international students in the US had grown 32% since 2000/01 to nearly 800,000.  32% is enough to grab headlines, but domestic enrollments have grown, too.  Internationals were 3.6% of enrollments in 2000/01, and 3.5% in 2010/11.  Where is the growth?

Another surprise can be found in figures for undergraduate education.  American colleges may offer the best undergraduate experience in the world, featuring a unique commitment to the liberal arts.  The US has hundreds of independent, small colleges—a tradition found nowhere else.  Yet the percentage of internationals that are undergraduates actually has declined from 46% to 40% from 2000/01 to 2010/11.

Finally, it is well known that China has become the number one “supplier” of students to the US, with a 23.5% increase just in the last year.  But the most stunning figure in the Open Doors report is the growth of students from Saudi Arabia during the same year.  The number of Saudi students jumped 43.6%!  Saudi Arabia is now the number six “supplier,” ahead of Japan.  So interest in the Arab world may be the most important trend ahead.

We live in an exciting era of international exchange, reflecting the realization that we share deep and lasting traditions of higher education that cross boundaries.  But we should hesitate before we over-generalize.  Our excitement should not dim our ability to see the landscape clearly.

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Filed under Academic Exploration, College Admissions, International Exchange, Study Abroad

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