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US college degrees: Still the best among world's top universities?

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This variety is a chief attraction for foreign students. Even when their numbers fell in the four years following 9/11 – due to visa restrictions and global uncertainty – the largest year-to-year dip was only 2.4 percent. And foreign enrollment since has risen steadily to more than 670,000 in 2008-09 – more than 20 percent higher than 2000-01.

Even though the economic downturn is expected to affect foreign enrollment in September, international applications to graduate programs are up by 7 percent, says Peggy Blumenthal, vice president for educational services at the Institute of International Education (IIE) in New York.

International students may account for less than 4 percent of all enrollment, but their contribution to the US is disproportionately large. In 2009-10 they contributed $18 billion to the economy, according to estimates by the National Association of International Educators. That's the equivalent of 60 percent of US Department of Education spending on higher education in 2008, and a little more than it spent on student financial aid.

More significant still is foreign students' contribution to technological innovation and sciences: Close to 70 percent of all engineering PhDs granted in 2006 went to foreign-born students, as did more than half the doctoral degrees in the physical sciences, reports the National Science Foundation.

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