The number of international students studying in the United States is rising. Figures released by the Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange shows the number of foreign students attending U.S. colleges and universities increased seven percent during the 2012 - 2013 academic year. That represents a record high of almost 820,000, and educators expect the upward trend to continue.
In the pursuit of higher learning, the United States is still the top destination.
At the International Student House in Washington, a temporary residence for students from over 40 countries, communications student Neena Dominic from India says the United States was her number one choice.
“It’s a known fact that United States is powerful in terms of its education and its skill level. And I wanted to get a taste of it," she said.
Neena is part of the growing number of students who come to the United States to study.
The majority come from China with over 235-thousand students attending U.S. colleges -- followed by India, South Korea and Saudi Arabia.
Zheng Zhu says the U.S. educational system has surpassed his expectations. But he says the biggest surprise has been Americans.
“I would say U.S. people probably are much nice than what I thought. Really? Yeah," he said.
Besides making new friends, Zheng says his experience has expanded his understanding of the U.S.
But Alan Goodman, President of the Institute for International Education, says cultural exchange is a two-way street.
“International should be part of everybody’s education. We should encourage that. We should require every freshman entering American higher education to enter with a passport, and then to make plans with their faculty member over the course of the four years to use that passport," he said.
Although the number of Americans studying abroad rose three percent to nearly 300 thousand last year -- fewer than 10 percent of American college students have studied overseas -- most for only one semester.
That's unfortunate says Neena Dominic.
“I came here and I realized one thing. While we know a lot about America, Americans don’t know much about our countries," she said.
Another criticism is that immigration laws severely limit the number of students able to live and work in the U.S. after receiving their degrees.
Lawmakers are considering more options to keep the best and the brightest. But Evan Ryan, Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs, says current laws reflect American policy.
“Our mission really is to bring people here to study but then to have them return home because our belief is that’s the only way to increase mutual understanding," she said.
Zheng Zhu agrees an overseas education promotes a larger world view, which he says, could help reduce global conflicts.
"If you have more cultural communications - people from China go to America, and let American students go to China; build mutual understanding, I think it would solve this problem," he said.
International students contribute $24 billion to the U.S. economy, with the majority paying full tuition. Their top destinations - California, New York and Texas.