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International Students


Kathryn Gray Skinner

Anuradha Shenoy


Formerly referred to as foreign students, international students are students from abroad who are enrolled for courses at American schools, colleges, or universities and admitted under a temporary visa. These students' primary intent is to obtain an American undergraduate, graduate, or professional degree and return to their home countries.

The number of international students studying at American colleges and universities is rising. More international students pass through America's doors than those of any other country, making the United States the world's most sought-after and diverse educational region in the world. More than half a million (514,723 in the year 2000) international students, or 3.8 percent of all U.S. higher education students, were enrolled between 1999 and 2000. This3.8 percent included 2.7 percent of all four-year undergraduates and 12 percent of graduate enrollments. These individuals were admitted expressly for the purpose of study. They did not include recent immigrants, resident aliens, or refugees.

Characteristics of International Students

In 2000 Asian students (from China, Japan, and India) constituted more than half of international enrollments, and Europeans were the second largest regional group, with 15 percent of U.S. enrollments. More than two-thirds (67%) of all international students in the United States receive their primary source of support from non-U.S. sources. These sources include personal and family funds. U.S. colleges and universities provide approximately 19 percent of funds and home governments/universities provide 4 percent.

More than 20 percent of all international students are enrolled in universities and colleges located in just ten U.S. counties in or around New York City, Los Angeles, Boston, and Washington, D.C. International students currently study in areas where there are centers of finance, information, technology, media services, education, and industry, which are crucial to the emerging global economy.

Business and management are the most popular fields of study among international students, followed by engineering, mathematics, and computer science. These students come to America to study fields that are not well developed in their countries. International undergraduates have in the past outnumbered graduates; however, the pattern changed in the late 1980s, when the graduate and undergraduate proportions were roughly equal. Male foreign students have consistently outnumbered female students; however, the proportion of females is rising steadily. More than 2,500 U.S. institutions host international students and the international presence varies widely from institution to institution.

International students, scholars, and faculty enrich American colleges and universities and, eventually, U.S.-based firms. It is the collective responsibility of lawmakers, university administrators, and state government to ensure that the best of them continue to choose the United States for their education. In addition to providing diversity on American campuses, these students and their dependents make an economic contribution of $12.3 billion dollars per year (1999–2000).

Admissions Process for International Students

Admissions offices at universities, which admit large numbers of international students, are well versed in the recruitment and admission of international students. Colleges, which admit smaller numbers of international students, must develop recruitment and admission procedures and often rely on knowledgeable colleagues at nearby universities to answer admission and immigration questions.

Testing. Each U.S. college and university has its own admission standards for admitting international students. Most universities require the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), proof of graduation from high school, and either the SAT or ACT Assessment. The question often arises if the SAT and ACT Assessment are appropriate tests to be used for admission of international students into American colleges and universities, as it has been argued they are culturally bound tests (made for American students). Although there is truth to this argument, the SAT and ACT Assessment are the two tests that are most familiar to American universities for admissions decisions. Traditionally, test scores alone are not the sole determinants for university admission. Usually university admissions offices use a composite of international students' high-school course work (its rigor and depth), English-language ability, participation in school and community activities, scores on standardized tests, and commitment to academic purpose in making admissions decisions. International students are often asked to provide a writing sample and are given mathematics and English-language placement tests, once they are admitted, to determine their correct academic placement in classes.

Foreign transcript evaluation. International students seeking to transfer to American universities from foreign universities abroad must have their transcripts evaluated by a transcript-evaluation service in order to determine if their course work taken abroad will transfer (for degree credit) to the American semester or quarter system. Large universities often evaluate foreign credentials in-house, while smaller universities require that international students have their credentials evaluated by a professional evaluation service (specializing in the translation and evaluation of foreign academic credentials) either prior to or during the admissions process.

Entering the United States. International students currently apply to American universities via university websites, through overseas advising centers, by written form, and in person while visiting the United States. The most common visa category for international students is F–1 (student visa) followed by the J–1 (exchange visitor). Visas are obtained abroad in the student's home country once he or she has been fully admitted to an American college or university, and a document–either I–20 (for F–1 students) or IAP–66 (for J–1 students)–has been sent to the student.

Foreign student advisers must determine that each international student has sufficient academic preparation to enter the college or university, appropriate English-language ability (or the student will enroll for English as a second language [ESL] classes prior to pursuing academic credit), and sufficient funding to cover the total cost of tuition, room, board, fees, books, insurance, and so forth, while studying in the United States. Foreign student advisers are the front line for American embassies abroad and their roles are vital in that they are responsible for determining which students possess the academic, linguistic, and financial ability to be admitted to study in the United States. Academic institutions in the United States, which have been designated by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to offer courses of study, are allowed to admit international students for a specific educational or professional objective. Just because a student has the appropriate academic background, sufficient financial resources, and is issued a Form I–20 or a Form IAP–66 does not always mean that he or she will receive a visa to study in the United States.

U.S. consulates abroad determine which students receive visas. If a visa officer determines that a student does not (in his or her estimation) have the appropriate academic background, sufficient English-language fluency, and the financial means of support, or if the officer determines that the student has intent to immigrate (or has otherwise misinterpreted his or her intent) the visa may be denied. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (INA) allows a nonimmigrant student to enter the United States, who is a bona fide student qualified to pursue a full course of study and who seeks to enter the United States temporarily and solely for the purpose of pursuing a course of study at an established college, university, seminary, conservatory, academic high school, elementary school, or other academic institution, or in a language-training program.

The school, through the official responsible for admission, accepts the prospective student for enrollment in a "full course of study" that leads to the attainment of a "specific educational or professional objective"(Fosnocht, p. 3). In order to be admitted to an American college or university, the international student's application, transcripts, and all other supporting documents normally necessary to determine scholastic and linguistic eligibility for admission, as well as the student's financial documentation, must be received, reviewed, and evaluated at the school's location in the United States. Newly admitted international applicants should be advised that they are likely to be required to present documentary evidence of financial support at the time they apply for a visa and again to the INS when they arrive in the United States. Close communication during the application and admission process between a prospective international student and the foreign student adviser can prevent most (but not all) unexpected problems and visa denials.

Adjustments for International Students

International students who choose to study in the United States usually are among the brightest and most highly motivated of the student-age population in their home countries. Only students with a high degree of motivation can cope simultaneously with the necessary language learning, travel, and dislocation anxiety necessary to enter American universities. Pierre Casse defines cross-cultural adaptation as the process by which an individual is forced to function effectively, but without alienation, in a setting that does not recognize all or parts of the assumptions and behavioral patterns that the person takes for granted. Culture shock is brought on by the anxiety that results from losing all the familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse.

The challenges. International students often arrive in the United States unaware of the immense hurdles in adjustment they must overcome to be successful in the American educational system. These hurdles include English-language acquisition, adaptation to differences in education systems, differences in philosophy/purpose of education, learning styles, and the challenges of other social, religious, and economic values. International students arrive with their own strategies for coping, studying, and socializing; however, these strategies often do not fit the dominant culture and must be reworked.

A myriad of adaptive behaviors, including cognitive self-awareness, behavior modification, and experimental learning take place. Studies by Jin Abe, Donn M. Talbot, and Robyn J. Geelhoed indicate that social adjustment and institutional attachment are significantly lower for international students than for their U.S. counterparts. In addition noncognitive variables, such as self-confidence, availability of a strong support person, realistic self-appraisal, leadership opportunities, and preference for long-range academic goals all impact international students' academic success and persistence. The pressure for international students created by inadequate language skills, inappropriate study skills and habits, and ineffective coping strategies for being a student reveal themselves in many areas of students' lives. Ongoing organized interactions between international and American students are crucial for successful integration into the campus environment. International students experience a constant adaptational process as they attempt to integrate into the American university system.

Cultural adaptation. According to Carmel Camilleri, there is much tension and many psychological problems that international students face related to difficulties of cultural adaptation. Five areas that give foreign students the most difficulty are: abandonment of important cultural values, compromises to merge modern privileges while preserving traditional values, viewing one's community in a position of inequality with respect to society, inability to make sense of nonverbal communication, and dual roles related to parental issues.

The acquisition of culture for international students occurs inside and outside the classroom. There are the lessons that are taught formally and the lessons that are learned informally. These lessons enable international students to make meaning of their environment. Certain agreed-on values reside within and become part of the international student's cultural repertoire and are used to cope with the student's academic environment.

The process of international students entering and graduating from American colleges and universities is a dynamic one fraught with many chances to fail. It is the collective responsibility of administrators, professors, staff, and community volunteers to attempt to connect international students to their American higher education experience. Philip G. Altbach states that the presence of a half million international students and scholars from virtually every country in the world is the most important single element of globalization on American campuses.

Services Designed to Assist International Students

International education is growing in importance and as enrollments of international students in the United States increase, the abilities of teachers and administrators on American campuses must increase to meet these students' unique needs. The international dimension is critical to a well-conceived educational program. The internationalization of the university is one of the most significant challenges facing higher education in the twenty-first century.

The foreign student adviser. Typical services for international students at American colleges and universities include visa and immigration services, English as a second language (ESL) classes, orientation programs, and host family programs. Staff in international student services, admissions, and student affairs, and academic advisers and professors all help these international students. The foreign student adviser (in the international office or student services office) has the specialized function of dealing with international students. Skilled counselors, often housed in international offices on large campuses, provide services that include referral, coordination, and a special field of knowledge that deals with international students and their specific problems and needs. Traditionally, foreign student advisers and the staff of international offices help students with academic, immigration/visa, acculturation, language, financial, racial, cultural, religious, and ethnic issues.

The major function of the foreign student adviser is to help international students optimize their American educational experience. From orientation programs at the beginning of an international student's degree program to assistance with résumés as the student prepares to graduate, these advisers are interested in the international student's success. Foreign student advisers are responsible for international students and also to their universities. An odd situation exists in that foreign student advisers do not work for the federal government, yet they represent the federal government as Designated School Official (DSO) and Responsible Officer (RO) for the U.S. Department of Justice and the State Department in issuing visa paperwork. They are not paid or trained by the U.S. government, relying instead on professional training from organizations, such as NAFSA: Association of International Educators, a nonprofit professional organization, which provides thorough and authoritative sources of information for international educators in the United States.


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International students contribute billions of dollars to the economy of the United States every year. The U.S. Department of Commerce recognizes education and training as the fifth largest export of the United States and formally classifies it as an industry. During the 1998–1999 academic year, 490,933 international students studied in the United States and they brought almost $11.7 billion into the economy. During the 1999–2000 academic year, 514,723 international students were studying in the United States and they brought $12.3 billion into the economy, through expenditures on tuition and living expenses. While the number of international students studying at higher education institutions has steadily increased over the years, policymakers, market analysts and advocates have been concerned because U.S. competitiveness in the international student market has been declining. The U.S. share of internationally mobile students seeking higher education at universities outside their country of birth in 1982 was 40 percent. Statistics compiled by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in the year 1998 show that this percentage has now declined to approximately 32 percent.

Recognizing the contribution of international students to their economies, countries such as the United Kingdom, France, and Australia have introduced vigorous recruitment campaigns to compete for international students. The United States, in its bid to remain competitive in this market, is also formulating a series of measures to regain its market share in this industry.

Definition and Distribution

For the purposes of this entry, an international student will be defined as a student who (1) is a citizen or permanent resident of a country other than that in which he or she intends to study; (2) has a legal residence outside the country that he or she intends to study in; and (3) is or proposes to be in the host country solely for educational purposes on a temporary student visa. The United States today uses the term international student to describe individuals who fit this description, rather than foreign student, as in the past. Other countries still refer to students from other countries as foreign students. In this entry, these terms will be used interchangeably since different sources use either term. Table 1 provides figures for the distribution of foreign students in OECD countries by host country in academic year 1998–1999.

Global Market for International Higher Education

The global market for international higher education may be explained in terms of an interaction between supply-side factors and demand-side factors. It is important to note that the available literature in this area focuses only on students from developing nations choosing to pursue their higher education in developed countries. The literature does not shed light on reasons that students from developed countries choose to study in either developing countries or in other developed countries.

Supply-side factors. Supply-side factors refer to factors that motivate host countries to invite international students to study at their institutions of higher education. Supply-side factors may be classified into economic, political, security, and academic factors. Many of the factors mentioned here are specific to the United States, but may be generalized to other countries as well.

Economic factors. First, as mentioned earlier, international students and their dependents bring money into the economy. International students in Australia contributed more than $1 billion to the Australian economy and foreign students in the United Kingdom contributed approximately $1.8 billion to the economy of the United Kingdom. Second, international graduate students serve as research assistants in labs and projects at universities in the United States, thereby contributing to technological and scientific advancements. Third, in a country like the United States that has a strong tradition of immigration, foreign-born doctoral recipients, especially those in the science and technology fields, often stay on to enter the labor market as academicians or researchers, thereby making positive contributions to the U.S. economy and national interests. Finally, the presence of international students contributes to the creation of new jobs in the field of international educational exchange.

Political and security factors. First, students who study in the United States and then return to


their home countries are seen to go back with a sense of good will towards the United States. This good will benefits both U.S. political interests and business interests globally. Second, educating international students presents an opportunity to shape the future leaders who will guide the political, social, and economic development of their countries. International students in the United States gain an indepth exposure to American values such as democracy and take those values home to support democracies and free-market economies in their own countries. Third, educating international students plays an important role in American development assistance programs. Students educated in the United States form a cadre of trained professionals that understand the mission of U.S. development agencies such as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Development activities, while promoting social and economic progress in nations, also help to create a greater demand for American goods and services. Finally, international students provide Americans with an exposure to different cultures and political philosophies that, in addition to its social value, is seen as vital for U.S. security concerns.

Academic factors. First, international students provide cultural diversity to American campuses. Second, since they are often the best and the brightest in their countries, international students often provide a healthy dose of competition to American students, thereby raising the standards at institutions.

Demand-side factors. Demand-side factors refer to factors that motivate international students to seek higher education in countries outside their home countries. Economic models of student mobility have been developed since the mid-1960s by researchers including Everett Lee, Larry Sirowy and Alex Inkeles, Gerald Fry, William Cummings, Vinod B. Agarwal and Donald R. Winkler, and Philip G. Altbach. Most studies analyze demand-side factors that are classified as "push" factors and "pull" factors.

Push factors. The term push factors refers to factors that push students to seek higher education in countries other than their host or native countries. These can include poor educational facilities in certain subjects, social discrimination, limited openings at the university level, and an array of political and economic factors at home.

Pull factors. The term pull factors refers to incentives that pull students towards host countries. These factors include availability of scholarships, better facilities, political ties, cultural and linguistic similarities with the host country, and finally the hope that a foreign educational credential will help in obtaining a better job on their return to their home country.

Attracting International Students

The 1970s and 1980s saw a set of restrictive mechanisms, including tougher entry requirements and sharply higher tuition costs, come into place to restrict the flow of foreign students into the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Australia, and Canada. Reasons for this development included arguments that enrollments of foreign students damaged chances of students at home, that foreign students concentrated themselves in urban centers, and that foreign students often stayed and obtained employment in the host countries, thereby reducing opportunities for noninternational students in certain fields in those countries. However, recognizing the contributions that foreign students make to the economy, the United States and other countries have started making efforts to attract foreign students again.

Since late in the twentieth century, the United States has been in the process of formulating an international education policy to ease visa requirements, ease prohibitive tuition costs, and increase scholarships for international students.

The United Kingdom, the primary competitor of the United States for international students, has declared a formal international education policy designed to attract international students. The government and the British Council developed a program known as "the U.K. Education Brand" in 1999. The U.K. Education Brand is a research and development program that, according to the British Council, is intended to "re-establish and maintain the United Kingdom's credentials as a world class provider of education and training." In addition to aggressive marketing strategies, Prime Minister Tony Blair proposed a four-point program in 1999 to increase their current market share from 16 percent to 25 percent by 2005. The four point program includes (1) a streamlined visa process for qualified applicants; (2) state-of-the art electronic information systems in other countries to provide information to potential students; (3) removal of work restrictions so that international students can work and pay for school; and (4) 1,000 extra scholarships for international students funded by government and private industries.

Australia and other countries created easy-to-read websites that are inviting to students. Australia has established a comprehensive website that deals with all aspects of international education, sponsored by the government.

France, in 1998, announced a new initiative called Edu France, jointly created by the French ministry of national education, research, and technology; the ministry of foreign affairs; and the ministry for international cooperation. Edu France was created with a budget of 100 million French francs for four years and a target of attracting 500,000 students overall.

Japan's government is developing a plan to raise the number of foreign students studying in Japan from approximately 20,000 to 100,000. In 1999 the Japanese ministry of education instituted a simplified testing requirement for foreign students in Japan. Until 1999 students who came to Japan either at their own expense or on private scholarships had to take two tests, the Japanese Language Proficiency Test and the General Examination for Foreign Students. Now they need to take only one. Students interested in studying a liberal arts curriculum take the language proficiency test and students interested in studying science-based subjects take the general examination. Also, the tests are now given in ten overseas locations in Asia and are administered twice a year, compared to the previous system where they were administered only in Japan and only once a year.

Most countries interested in attracting international students are now formulating policies which ease work restrictions and visa requirements and simplify testing procedures.

Implications of September 11, 2001

The events of September 11, 2001, when international terrorists (several of whom had been in the United States under student visas) hijacked and crashed four American passenger planes, do not portend well for the United States as an attractive destination for international students. First, national security concerns have demanded that the United States tighten its immigration and admission procedures. Legislative demands for better tracking of international students could increase the oversight of international students in ways that some may find oppressive. Second, foreign students' own concerns for their personal safety might cause students not to choose the United States as a destination for study. Since neither the nature nor the degree of U.S. and international students' responses to the events of September 11, 2001 are clear at this time, it is too early to gauge the short-or long-term impact of potential changes.


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