Demand for degrees outstrips supply

March 19, 1999


A feared dramatic decline in the number of Asians who study in the United States has been forestalled by programmes designed to provide financial assistance to previously ineligible international students.

But the scare has focused Americans' attention on the economic importance of higher education as a major US export, on its vulnerability to conditions elsewhere and on competition from such non-traditional destinations as Australia.

The number of foreign students in the US rose by more than 5 per cent last year, to nearly half a million. But this upswing masked a more ominous trend - the increase followed a four-year period of little growth.

Meanwhile, the US share of all international students dropped from to 30 per cent in 1997 from 32 per cent in 1997 and from 40 per cent in the 1980s.

Today, 481,280 foreign scholars study in the United States. More than half of them are Asians. The top countries of origin are Japan, China, South Korea, India and Taiwan.

It is their continued dependence on Asian students that most concerns US schools, especially since the economic crisis there began. Many have for the first time offered Asian students campus jobs to pay toward their tuition.

A privately funded emergency assistance programme has provided almost $8 million in interest-free loans, partly to prevent Asian students from withdrawing and partly in recognition of the value of the educational exchanges.

"We felt it was vital that these students completed their US degrees and returned home to help rebuild the economies of their countries, which are trading partners with the US," said Houghton Freeman, chairman of the Freeman Foundation, which paid for the programme.

The disproportionate economic impact of foreign students, who comprise only 3 per cent of the total campus population, begins while they are attending university here. The US Department of Commerce ranks higher education as the country's fifth-largest service sector export, contributing more than $7.5 billion to the US economy each year in tuition and living expenses alone.

Of 345 universities and colleges surveyed earlier last month by the New York-based Institute of International Education, however, 34 per cent reported a decline in enrolment of Indonesians, 35 per cent in the number of Malaysians, 38 per cent in the number of Thais and 43 per cent in enrolment of Koreans.

Students from these four countries represent one-fifth of the international presence at US universities and colleges.

Now higher education officials are fretting that they have only postponed a further decline in the number of Asians on their campuses. The full impact of decreased admissions may not become apparent for several years.

"Whether the schools can continue to support these students, and how the deepening of the Asian crisis will affect new admissions, is unknown," said Allan Goodman, the Institute of International Education's president.

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