The Future of International Students in American Colleges

Despite all the bad press they get from within their own national borders, American colleges are still considered the most coveted educational institutions by people the world over. Like everyone else, international students want the best education they can afford and the best college experience they can find. Most American students have at least a basic knowledge of which schools might meet those criteria for them, but international students may have no idea where to begin looking. To that end, we’re looking into which schools offer the most financial aid and which schools attract the most international students, and where they’re coming from.

The Influx of Internationals

A handful of countries have been the most consistent sources of international students in the 21st century. Students from China, India, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Canada make up 56% of all international students. Their recent influx helped raise total international student enrollment by 6% in 2011-2012 to a new record of 754,000 students, the first time in 11 years that undergraduate international students have outnumbered graduate international students.

The rapid growth is the result of a perfect combination of increased university need and heightened foreign demand. Budget cuts are forcing colleges to seek more aggressive international growth, according to the International Student Mobility Trends 2013 report. Meanwhile, expanding economies in China and Saudi Arabia have brought the expense of an American degree within reach of more families in those countries. Even though the rates of students coming from Japan, South Korea, and India have either tapered off or plummeted (in Japan’s case) in the last six years, China’s rate has almost doubled and helped bring about a net gain.

Kaneisha Grayson is the founder of admissions consulting company The Art of Applying. In addition to working in the admissions field, Grayson earned both her MBA and MPA degrees from Harvard, a school consistently well-known for its sizeable population of international students. In her opinion, one of the most crucial draws for international students (and their parents) is the big-name recognition of a particular school in their home country.

“For a lot of international students, just like domestic students, college and sometimes even graduate school is being paid for partially or fully by their parents, or even by extended family members,” she says. “So it’s not just the student making the decision on which college to choose. And they want to choose a college that has strong name recognition, and often those are large schools or ones that are very highly ranked.”

That may explain the schools that attract the most international students in absolute numbers, but at the schools with the highest percentages of foreign students, there may be other, subtler factors at work. In working with a number of students from Hong Kong and China, as well as students from places like Singapore and Ukraine, Mark Montgomery of admissions advising company Montgomery Educational Consulting says he’s had parents who were “extremely concerned about ranking,” but he’s also had students with other priorities.

“I work with one student from China who absolutely did not want to go to college with lots of other Chinese (students),” Montgomery says. “Another boy was absolutely convinced he wanted to go to school in Miami, until he visited and realized that Spanish was sometimes more commonly spoken than English. He goes to school in Philadelphia now.”

Clearly international students’ college choices are driven by as diverse a list of factors as that of American kids. But there’s one concern understood and shared by parents from all corners of the globe, at least in regards to a college degree in the United States: how much will it cost?

The Financial Picture

The primary defense of many elite universities, when accused that their tuition fees are too high, is to point to the percentage of their students that receive financial aid. In fact, many of these schools make it their goal to cover 100% of an exceptional student’s expenses if he or she is significantly financially impaired. While this may be true for American students, it’s unlikely that the average international student will simultaneously be wealthy enough to afford travel and expenses for getting a degree in the U.S. and poor enough to qualify for free tuition.

Thus, lists like the one from U.S. News & World Report that show financial aid to international students in absolute amounts can be helpful, but foreign students should remember these amounts are averages — the typical student will still be responsible for the difference between aid and tuition and room and board, which may be thousands of dollars per year.

Taking those two expenses into account, we came up with a slightly different list of the best schools (that reported) for financial aid. With the lowest average difference of $2,631, Harvard University came out on top, followed closely by Skidmore College at $2,797. Yale, No. 1 on U.S. News & World Report‘s list, came in a distant third with a difference of $4,244. Trinity College moved up a spot with its $6,676 difference, edging Amherst College’s $7,110.

Stanford University found its way into the No. 7 slot with a $7,252 difference, despite being left out of the top 10 in absolute aid dollars. And though seventh on the original list, Dartmouth College dropped to 13th behind new entrants Vanderbilt and Caltech, thanks to its average bill of $11,221 for on-campus foreign students, proof that high volumes of financial aid can be offset by high fees.

The truth is that international undergrads will probably have to pay dearly for the privilege of an American education. Some schools already have surcharges in place for international students, and others are considering doing likewise. Many universities limit the amount of aid to international students or restrict it altogether. Even for some of those who do offer it, their online financial aid calculators may not work for international students. Students should begin their financial aid search at a particular school with the international student services department to find the help they need.

Schools with the Highest Concentrations of International Students

With the exception of Kansas’ Fort Hays State, all the colleges with the highest percentages of international students are in California, Florida, and New York — three of the top four states for most immigrants in the U.S. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that international students who choose to study in those states will find large populations that share their culture. For example, Florida has a huge Cuban population, but students from Europe far outweigh the number of North American international students there.

Liberal arts college: Soka University of America: “Be world citizens in solidarity for peace” is one-third of this California school’s motto. Soka has opened its doors to the world’s citizens so wide that an amazing 42% of its students are international, the highest rate for a major school in the country. The school gets its name from the Buddhist group Sōka Gakkai, a name it shares with its sister school in Japan. Students say it’s common to hear Japanese spoken in the halls, though 40 other countries are represented.

In fact, students may hear any number of foreign languages spoken at Soka because two years of foreign language classes are mandatory. Also required is a semester of study abroad in a country that speaks the language a student has chosen to study. It’s easy to see why an international student would feel at home at a place like Soka, where educators are “walking the walk.”

National universities: New School and Florida Institute of Technology: In the spirit of founder John Dewey, New York’s New School makes world citizenship and engagement a pillar of its academic philosophy, and the numbers reflect it. The school had the single highest rate of international students for the sixth year in a row for 2011-2012, with 27% of its 7,000 students from more than 100 different foreign countries. In the Mannes School for Music, the rate jumps to 40%.

The New School’s location in the melting pot environment of New York certainly makes the university attractive to internationals, but the school’s International Services Department goes to great lengths to entice foreign students and support them when they arrive. From assisting them through the visa application process to offering international student liaison officers, to each department to giving them tax advice, the New School sees to it that international students aren’t thrust into a different culture and left to fend for themselves.

At just one percentage point behind the New School, Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne is a hub for international students in the South. Located in a state with one of the largest immigrant populations in the U.S., FIT attracts foreign students with offerings like the International Friendship Program, which pairs students with Panther staff and community members to help them acclimate to American culture. The Diplomat Program is FIT’s answer to New School’s liaisons, in which veteran foreign students guide freshmen through the difficult transition process.

Regional university: Fort Hays State University: FHSU is a bit of a special case. Since 2000, the “regional university with a global outlook” has maintained a partnership with SIAS International University in China to offer Chinese students an American college degree. It has since expanded to Shenyang Normal University and serves 3,700 students at the two schools, and it has affiliations with nearly 20 other universities in the Republic. So even though it has a healthy number of foreign students from 24 countries on its Kansas campus, it claims its students in China as international students, bringing its rate to a whopping 36%.

Regional college: Webber International University: Foreign students at this Florida college consistently cite the ESL programs of the American Language Institute as their primary motivation for enrolling. More than just language instruction, the programs seek to prepare international students with little to pursue a degree at an American college through counseling, cultural awareness education, and evaluation. The school’s efforts have paid off as more than a quarter of their student body in 2011-2012 was international students.

A Diverse Future

The presence of international students is just one ingredient of the higher education shake-up taking place right now. Competition for coveted spots at the top schools continues to stiffen, while tuitions have yet to come down to a level that won’t saddle the average student with tens of thousands of dollars of debt after graduation. It will be difficult for American colleges to overlook millions of potential paying customers from other nations, and meeting their growing demand could delay the market correction that would otherwise be coming to force schools to lower the price of a degree.