BOSTON – As a surge of students from China begins to level off, many U.S. colleges are expanding recruiting efforts in the Middle East, South Asia and Latin America in part to boost budgets that have come to rely on tuition dollars from international students.
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The number of Chinese students at U.S. colleges rose from 62,000 a decade ago to 328,000 last year, and they still make up 31 percent of all international students in the U.S., but growth is slowing. On Monday, the Institute of International Education released federal data showing that the number of Chinese students at U.S. colleges grew by 8 percent last year, the smallest uptick since 2005.
Some schools are bracing for a decline, citing China's sluggish economy and sharper competition from colleges in Australia and other countries.
"For a variety of factors, we're seeing a slowdown in Chinese enrollment," said Todd Maurer, a California analyst who advises schools and education companies on trends in Asia. "I think we're seeing the last years of double-digit growth."
Colleges seek international students partly to boost diversity, but they also bring a financial perk. Most schools don't offer scholarships for international students, and charge them full tuition costs. Losing foreign students could hurt college budgets, especially at a time when some public universities are struggling with long-term drops in state funding.
Stephen Dunnett, vice provost for international education at the University at Buffalo, said many colleges worry they depend too heavily on revenue from Chinese students.
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"They would be severely hurt if there was a contraction," he said. "There's no Plan B. There's no other country that would send students in those numbers."
Buffalo is among many universities that have expanded global recruiting efforts in part to hedge against a possible decline from China. Along with continued work in China, Dunnett's office has turned its attention to growing countries such as Vietnam and Burma. Next year, the college plans to recruit in Iran for the first time.
This year, the University of Massachusetts Amherst made its first recruiting trip to Mexico and also bolstered its work in Singapore and Vietnam. Instead of sending recruiters to China this year, Bucknell University in Pennsylvania focused on India and sent admissions officials to South America for the first time in about a decade.
Other schools are exploring whether there could be a boom from sub-Saharan Africa. Nations such as Uganda, Ethiopia and Angola have growing youth populations and middle classes, two of the factors that U.S. colleges look for, but some say the region's governments don't offer enough funding to help students study abroad.
Rising tuition at U.S. colleges, meanwhile, has raised the barrier for many African families, said Kelechi Kalu, vice president of international affairs at the University of California-Riverside.
"When I was in the continent earlier in the summer, some of the parents and students were telling me they can spend less to go to Australia or the UK," he said.
Australia in particular has rapidly grown as a destination for foreign students, attracting 240,000 students to its colleges last year, a yearly uptick of 6 percent, according to national data. But experts say that U.S. colleges, which attracted 1 million international students last year, still have space to host far more students than other nations.
"We still have a lot of capacity," said Peggy Blumenthal, senior counselor to the president at the nonprofit Institute of International Education. "Chinese students are going to keep finding America the best place in the world to study."
Other countries where U.S. schools see recruiting promise include Cuba, Nigeria and India, which sent 165,000 students to the United States last year, a 25 percent jump in a year. According to the new data from Blumenthal's group, students from Nepal and Vietnam are also among the fastest-growing groups coming to the U.S.
Although colleges are expanding their reach, they don't expect any single country to deliver as many students as China. Last year, Chinese students in the U.S. outnumbered their peers from the top four following countries combined. Instead, colleges say they aim to diversify their global enrollment to shield it from national swings.
And even though some schools are scaling back their recruiting in China, many say it will remain a centerpiece of their recruiting plans for years to come.
"We've made some real progress over the last five years," said James Roche, associate provost for enrollment management at UMass Amherst. "It would be just short of ridiculous to stop doing that kind of work."
The Institute of International Education's Open Doors report: http://www.iie.org/Research-and-Publications/Open-Doors