Despite Expense, Foreigners Pursue U.S. Degrees

Part of a weeklong series on the impact of the economy on higher education

About This Series

This week, Morning Edition studies The New College Math: families and students who are recalculating how much they can spend during a recession; colleges trying to fill seats; and an expansion in federal aid that could determine for some whether they attend college at all.

Few businesses are immune to recession, but education comes close — enrollment in American colleges is hitting record highs as people look to education to improve their economic situation. Enrollment is growing even among those students who have to travel halfway around the world to get here.

Dafina Mulaj came from Kosovo to study in the U.S. The 21-year-old says her whole family is pitching in to help her pay tuition at Virginia's George Mason University.

"For them, it's a sacrifice. But it's a good sacrifice because they are investing in me; and I am their child, and I will invest in my sisters, who are younger than me; and I will invest in my country, as well," Mulaj says.

Mulaj is one of more than 2,000 foreign students at George Mason, a state school in the Washington suburbs that has become a destination university for foreign students. Despite tough times, George Mason is seeing a rise in applications from abroad for next year.

Judith Green, director of the office of international programs, says overseas families must prove they are serious before they can be considered for admission.

"We require bank statements, we require a sponsor's signature, we do the first check before we issue the visa documents, and then they are checked again at the U.S. Consulate post when they apply for a student visa," Green says.

Having hopped that hurdle, Green says families generally don't give up on their dream even if the economy back home goes sour.

It's impossible to know just how many students will actually come to the U.S. in the fall of 2009, but educators expect interest will remain high. Alan Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education, says that when he recently visited Vietnam, he heard stories like this: "I've saved up, over the years, $200,000 — it's all in cash, because we don't trust the banks — and when it's time for my child to go, we have actual dollars that will be paid for actual tuitions."

Vietnam has been rising rapidly on the list of countries sending students to the U.S.

America's image as a bastion of financial stability may be crumbling, but the value of a diploma from a U.S. school is still solid gold. That's particularly true for degrees from U.S. business schools.

"Business degrees are far and away the most popular end objective of most foreign students," says John Fernandez, president of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. He says that developing countries just don't have much to offer in this area. "There are few, but not enough to deal with the masses that they must send through higher education, so that's good news for United States-based business schools."

So there's good reason to believe that the number of foreign students at colleges in the U.S. — 624,000 at last count — will continue to grow. But as home economies weaken, foreign students here are struggling.

"I'm hearing stories like, 'Dad lost his job'; 'We're not able to sell things in our shop anymore'," says Amy Moffitt of George Mason University, who adds that foreign students are not eligible for federal aid. But they can apply for special work permits if they're really broke, and she is seeing an increase in those hardship applications. Most, she says, will work or borrow — whatever it takes to finish — but their big fear is that they'll hit the job market right in the middle of the recession.

"Because a lot of them count on getting a job after they graduate for a year, if they have the option to work for a year in F-1 status. And they are afraid that they won't find a job if they graduate now. So they're trying, actually, to delay their graduation," Moffitt says.

Now, of course, many schools are hurting — they are facing cuts in state funding, and their endowments are tanking. But in a world of failing businesses, American higher education remains a bright spot — a beacon that continues to attract students from all over the world, no matter what the cost.

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