The story, once again, is China. Thousands of mainland Chinese students in pursuit of an American education helped drive up international enrollments at colleges across the United States last fall, according to the latest "Open Doors" report from the Institute of International Education.
Double-digit growth from China, primarily at the undergraduate level, along with a steady uptick in Saudi Arabian students are largely responsible for the increase in international enrollments to 764,495, a 5.7-percent rise over the year before.
These drivers are so significant that for the first time in 11 years there are more international undergraduate than graduate students in the United States.
"That's likely to be a game changer," says Allan E. Goodman, the institute's president. Undergraduates not only stay longer, he noted, but have more impact on campus culture, both inside the classroom and out.
In all, the total number of international students in the United States grew faster in 2011 than it did in 2010 or 2009, as did the number of first-time students—a 6.5-percent increase—which is perhaps a more accurate measure of long-term interest in American education. Growth was particularly strong at the bachelor's level and among students seeking English-language instruction. According to figures generated by Nafsa: Association of International Educators, international students and their dependents contributed $21.8-billion to the American economy in tuition and living expenses.
Other news is not so comforting. Aside from China and Saudi Arabia, numbers from other countries that American colleges rely most on for international students either declined or saw marginal growth. That includes South Korea, where enrollments have hovered around 72,000 for several years, and Japan, where enrollments plummeted 41 percent in five years.
ndia, which once sent more students to the United States than any other country, continues to flatline. Consider this: As recently as six years ago, China and India each sent about 100,000 students each to the United States. Today the number of Chinese students studying here has nearly doubled, while India's numbers have dropped by 3,000.
Demographic changes and economic conditions are behind some countries' weak showings. Both Japan and South Korea, for example, tend to send undergraduates, who are more sensitive to economic conditions since families pay the full cost of education. And both countries have aging populations.
While most Indian students come in at the graduate level, many pursue master's degrees paid for out of their own pockets. The weak rupee and a sluggish Indian economy have put a damper on interest in studying in the United States.
"The only thing holding U.S. education back is Indians' ability to pay for it," says Rahul Choudaha, director of research and advisory services at World Education Services, a nonprofit group that specializes in evaluating foreign credentials and student trends.
Moreover, many Indian students hope to find work in the country where they study. Because of the struggling economy here, America has lost some of its luster.
By contrast, Chinese students who study in the United States return home with valued language skills, something that can help them land a higher-paying job in their home country. And many Chinese families, responsible for only one child, have more resources to pay for a costly American degree.
International recruiters are well aware of these differences, and have flooded China looking for new students. "People are creating all kinds of strategies. Some send their ELS programs, some send their honors programs," says F. David McCauley, deputy director of college counseling at Beijing National Day School. "They're trying to find a nugget. They're trying to strike a vein."
Saudi Arabia has also proved to be a boon to American colleges. According to "Open Doors," the number of Saudi students enrolled at American colleges jumped 50 percent between 2010 and 2011, to 34,139. Most of those students are here on a scholarship program started by King Abdullah in 2005. They usually enter through intensive-English programs and continue on to receive bachelor's degrees, says Mody Alkhalaf, assistant attache for cultural and social affairs at Saudi Arabia's cultural mission. If they wish, they can apply to extend their scholarships to pursue graduate degrees, she says, and most want to do so.
The impact of the scholarship program, which sends students abroad worldwide, has been so profound, Ms. Alkhalaf says, that "almost every family in Saudi Arabia has one or more scholarship students on the program."
Both seasoned veterans and newcomers to international recruitment have benefited from the overseas appetite for American degrees.
Jing Luan, vice chancellor for educational services and planning for the San Mateo County Community College District, which began recruiting aggressively a year and a half ago, says that careful planning has led to significant enrollment increases at his three colleges. They've translated the international-recruitment page of their Web site into 10 other languages, improved services and clubs for international students, and crafted a marketing plan that trumpets community college as a pathway to a prestigious four-year institution.
That has led international enrollments, while still small, to double in one year, to about 270 students, with China and Saudi Arabia as the top source countries. (Saudi Arabia for the first time this fall has allowed its students to attend community college.)
For public institutions that have seen their state support shrink, China has proved to be a godsend. Many state colleges also say that foreign students provide an international perspective to their undergraduate learning, which is particularly important given that the percentage of Americans studying abroad remains largely flat. "For those who can't leave campus, we want to give them an international experience," says Michael Bustle, associate vice provost and director of North Carolina State University's Global Training Initiative.
But colleges are also keenly aware that as they increase international enrollments, they need to bolster the services surrounding them, from English-language classes to academic advising to extracurricular activities. "We can't be bringing students here to fail," says Charles A.S. Bankart, assistant vice provost for international programs at the University of Kansas.
The Obama administration and the Departments of State and Commerce have also been more aggressive in advocating for bringing more international students to the United States. This year President Obama pledged to increase the number of students from Latin America and the Caribbean to 100,000, up from 64,000. His administration has also backed deeper education ties to Indonesia, India, and China.