China increases pace in foreign student contingent

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More foreign students are studying at U.S. colleges and universities than ever before, as global competitors such as China export an increasing number of their young people for degrees.

In the 2010-2011 academic year, more than 157,000 Chinese students took classes on American soil, according to the 2011 “Open Doors” report, an annual study by the Institute of International Education. Chinese students now account for more than 21 percent of all foreigners who come to the U.S. for post-secondary schooling.

About 14 percent of foreign students come from India, while 10 percent hail from South Korea, the report says. Canada and Taiwan round out the top five, with 3.8 percent and 3.4 percent, respectively.

More than 720,000 international students came to the U.S. in 2010, a 4.7 percent increase from a year earlier. Analysts see the trend as confirmation that the U.S. remains the leader in higher education and a magnet for the best and brightest from around the world.

Some foreign students, however, quickly pack up and return to their native countries after graduation, using the knowledge and skills they gained in the U.S. to benefit competing economies. Others choose to stick around and go to work for American companies, while some continue their education elsewhere. Proponents of foreign education believe that, even if the U.S. educates some of its competitors, the overall effect will benefit each nation involved.

“Educational exchange in both directions furthers business and cultural ties between the United States and other countries,” said Institute of International Education President Allan Goodman.

While nearly all universities host at least a few foreigners, schools in New York, Texas and California dominate the market with 33 percent of all international students, according to the report. The University of Southern California leads the way with 8,615 international students. The University of Illinois, New York University, Purdue University and Columbia University each attracted more than 7,000 last year, and 13 other universities drew more than 5,000.

USC and other schools use their diverse populations to market themselves to prospective students. USC President C.L. Max Nikias said in a statement Monday that the school “hums with diversity, fresh perspectives and a broad range of experiences,” making USC “a truly unique experience for its students to learn and grow.” Chinese and Indian students make up the largest foreign contingents at USC, which Mr. Nikias attributed to the school’s “reputation along the Pacific Rim and a commitment to recruiting supported by an expanding alumni base in several Chinese and Indian cities.”

While schools such as USC are becoming more and more popular with Chinese students, American students looking for a semester abroad prefer somewhere more familiar, the report shows. The United Kingdom remains the most frequent destination for Americans, and analysts believe the reason is simple: Students studying in the U.K. don’t need to learn another language, as they would if they spent a year in Italy, Spain or France.

But federal officials on Monday urged more students to embrace the challenges of attending college outside the country, suggesting that the practice helps build a more well-rounded workforce capable of competing with the rest of the world.

“There is no substitute for living in a foreign country, communicating in another language and understanding cultures, institutions and traditions,” said Ann Stock, assistant secretary of state, during an address at the National Press Club, where the report was released. “We need more students choosing to study abroad.”

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