For decades, the United States has been a magnet for the world's brightest university students. But the number of foreign students enrolling in U.S. colleges and universities slumped after the terrorist attacks of 2001. Now, U.S. officials say those numbers have rebounded, and America's educational ties to the world are stronger than ever. From Washington, VOA's Michael Bowman reports.
From 1985 to 2002, the number of international students enrolled in U.S. institutions of higher learning rose each and every year, for a cumulative increase of more than 50 percent. From 2002 to 2005, however, the trend reversed and enrollment declined. The drop in enrollment from Middle Eastern and Muslim nations was especially severe.
The last two years have seen a rebound in overall foreign enrollment, a fact trumpeted by Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Karen Hughes at a Washington news conference.
"The number of international students who came to America to study in academic year 2006-2007 has increased from last year and rebounded to record-setting pre-9/11 levels," said Hughes. "The number of American students traveling abroad to study is at an all time high."
Nearly 600,000 international students are currently enrolled in American colleges and universities, according to the Institute of International Education, which administers the much-heralded Fulbright scholarship program on behalf of the State Department. That number represents more than a fifth of the world's international students, making the United States the world's top destination for foreign scholars, followed by the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Australia, and China. Secretary Hughes says the benefits are enormous.
"I believe that America's international educational and exchange programs have proven to be our single most-effective public diplomacy tool of the last 50 years," said Hughes. "These programs also have the potential to change the world, because more than 130 world leaders have participated in America's international exchange programs, including the current president of France, the current prime minister of Britain, and the new president of Turkey."
More than half the international students enrolled in U.S. institutions come from Asia. The top five leading nations of origin are India, China, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. The top fields of study are engineering and business management. Americans studying abroad overwhelmingly opt for European destinations.
Institute of International Education Vice President Peggy Blumenthal says the total number of international students is growing and will continue to do so.
"This is really not a matter of [asking] which of us can capture the largest share of a static number of students, but [rather] how can we all build our capacity so we can host the increasingly expanding number of international students who want to study abroad," said Blumenthal. "In the 2004-2005 period, worldwide international students increased from 2.5 million to 2.7 million, and the projections are for it to very dramatically expand [further]."
In this regard, the United States has a clear advantage over some other countries. Foreign students account for less than five percent of America's total student body in higher education, compared to roughly 20 percent in Australia.
Blumenthal says, not only does the United States host more international students than any other nation, it has the capacity to increase that number in a way that few other nations can match.