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US Colleges Look to Foreign Students

Photo Credit: Chung Sung-Jun / Getty Images AsiaPac

Many Georgia universities and colleges are stepping up their efforts to lure foreign students to their campuses. But they are not alone: while the number of foreigners studying in the U.S. continues to climb, more domestic educational institutions are also looking overseas to increase their revenues.

The number of international students at colleges and universities in the United States increased by 3% to 690,923 during the 2009/2010 academic year, according to the Open Doors report, which is published annually by the Institute of International Education (IIE) with support from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs. Those figures represent a record high number of international students that year. While the 3% is down from the double-digit increases for the preceding few years, early trends indicate the 2010/2011 numbers will also be up when they are released later this year.

The 2009/2010 growth was primarily driven by a 30% increase in Chinese student enrollment in the U.S. Chinese students totaled nearly 127,628, or more than 18% of the total international student population. China is the top sending country, with India second at 104,897 and South Korea (the leader until 2008) ranking third at 104,897 students. Canada, Taiwan and Japan occupy the next three spots, with the five Asian countries in that list responsible for 52% of foreign students in the U.S.

The report also shows Georgia ranking 13th among U.S. states with 14,707 foreign students – a 4.9% increase. The top five Georgia institutions with the highest foreign student enrollment are Georgia Tech, the University of Georgia (UGA), Emory University, Georgia State University (GSU) and Savannah College of Art and Design. China accounted for 17.6% of the state’s foreign students, followed by India (17.2%), South Korea (13.9%), Taiwan (3.2%) and Canada (2%). {For more details on Georgia enrollment, please visit here}

Some Georgia colleges are far along with successful international student recruitment, while others are just getting started. GSU in Atlanta claims students from more than 160 countries, while Georgia College in Milledgeville has more than 100 international students from 50 countries. The incoming 2011/2012 class at UGA lists 223 freshmen from 51 home countries among its 5,500 freshman class.

Colleges struggling with lower revenues are eager to bring foreign students -- and the higher tuitions they pay. Private and public institutions are seeking new income to offset the lower state and federal revenues for educational institutions. While domestic financial troubles are forcing more U.S. students to postpone post-secondary education, rising prosperity in Asia provides families the funds they need to obtain a highly-prized American education.  In China, 4% of high school students are exploring options for studying overseas, which means some 400,000 are considering foreign studies.

Also, foreign students have an economic impact beyond colleges. According to Open Doors, foreign students spend an estimated $383.9 million dollars in the state annually. (Around the world, the average Korean student spends more than $30,000 annually while at an overseas institution.) More exposure to Georgia may also help bring more business to the state, such as when a parent’s company decides to invest here or the student returns after graduation to represent his new employer.   

China and Korea are both working to build world-class centers of learning, but many families still send their students overseas to school – and the United States still leads the world in educating foreign students with an 18.7% market share. Students who study aboard now total about three million, with the market expected to reach eight million by 2025.

Georgia educational leaders who hope riding the international wave will help their bottom line are finding that competition among U.S. institutions is already heating up. Many colleges are recruiting overseas for the first time – particularly private schools, smaller public universities and even community colleges. (International enrollment at two-year universities rose 10.5% in 2008, while the national overall average climbed by 7.7 %.) Top institutions such as Rutgers, the State University of New York, Tulane and several California state schools are active internationally. However, success is also being reported by smaller schools like Northern Illinois University, Plymouth State in New Hampshire, Foothill-De Anza Community College in California, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach and Angelo State in Texas (which partners with Korean schools to find students). Fifteen schools (including Wake Forest, and the University of Maryland) recently formed an alliance to work directly with Chinese high schools.

U.S. institutions are also finding recruiting Asian students requires an approach that it tailored differently that what they use to reach domestic teens. The flashy web site that brings in savvy Americans may have little effect in China, where parents are heavily involved in the decision-making process. Parents respond better to a glossy marketing brochure in Mandarin, for example. Most Chinese families are cost-conscious. They look for brand awareness (such as “Ivy League) and national rankings (i.e., the U.S. News and World Reports lists). They also perceive the U.S. as a dangerous place, so they need reassurance that a given campus is safe for their children.

Recruiting in Korean also presents challenges as well as opportunities. Experts say materials should be translated into Korean and look similar to locally produced marketing collateral. South Koreans in particularly want to be sure that the culture at their target college will welcome them. On its web site, the University of Utah – which has targeted Korean high school and college students for years – states, “Our college is a welcoming environment for Korean students with outstanding educational programs and a comprehensive on-campus program of support.”

Another challenge in the Asian market is commission-based education agents who help students select and apply for universities. While the use of educational agents is controversial in the U.S., some 80% of Chinese students use agents to find their schools. An Asian cultural tradition of using go-betweens (like matchmakers) for major transactions leaves many families believing an agent gives them the best opportunity to get into a good school. The Chinese government has licenses more than 400 agencies. More U.S. schools are now working with these agencies, paying them a fee such as 10% of first-year tuition. In some cases, agents also get 10% of any financial aid they can help the student acquire. Some agencies allegedly push students towards the school which pays the agent the largest commission.

While there are cultural differences and logistical challenges to effective recruit in Asian markets, effective foreign student recruitment can also bring rewards to Georgia’s educational institutions. Between the continuing increase in foreign students and the financial stresses that force the state’s colleges to look for new revenue streams, we can expect to see Georgia educators continuing to step up their efforts to compete for foreign dollars in the international market.

Questions or comments? Please email Michael Fenton at mfenton@atlantapacificgroup.com