RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This week, we're looking at how higher education is faring during this recession. And as NPR's Larry Abramson reports, foreign students' desire for an American education is as strong as ever.
LARRY ABRAMSON: Twenty-one-year-old Dafina Mulaj came all the way from Kosovo to study in the United States. She says her whole family is pitching in to help her pay the cost of tuition at Virginia's George Mason University.
Ms. DAFINA MULAJ (Student, George Mason University): For them, it's a sacrifice. But it's a good sacrifice because they are investing on me, and I'm their child. And I will invest in my sisters, who are younger than me, and I will invest in my country, as well.
ABRAMSON: Mulaj is one of over 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 the next year.
Judith Green, director of the office of international programs here, says overseas families must prove they're serious before they can even be considered for admission.
Ms. JUDITH GREEN (Director, Office of International Programs, George Mason University): We require bank statements. We require a sponsor signature. We do the first check before we issue the visa documents, and then they're checked again at the U.S. consulate post when they apply for a student visa.
ABRAMSON: Having hopped that hurdle, Green says families generally do not 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 is president of the Institute of International Education. He says when he recently visited Vietnam, he heard stories like this one.
Mr. ALAN GOODMAN (President of the Institute of International Education): 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.
ABRAMSON: 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.
Mr. JOHN FERNANDEZ (President, Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business): Business degrees are far and away the most popular end objective of foreign students.
ABRAMSON: John Fernandez is president of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. He says developing countries just don't have much to offer in this area.
Mr. FERNANDEZ: There are a 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.
ABRAMSON: So there's good reason to believe that the number of foreign students here - 624,000 at last count - will continue to grow. But as home economies weaken, foreign students here are struggling.
Ms. AMY MOFFETT (George Mason University): I'm hearing the stories, dad lost his job. We're not able to sell things in our shop anymore, dot, dot, dot. I'm hearing a lot of that.
ABRAMSON: Amy Moffett of the George Mason program says 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 now is that they'll hit the job market right in the middle of the recession.
Ms. MOFFETT: Because a lot of them count on getting a job after they graduate. For a year, they have the option to work for a year in F-1 status. And they're afraid that they won't find a job if they graduate now. So they're trying to actually delay their graduation.
ABRAMSON: Now, of course, many American colleges are hurting - they're facing cuts in state funding, and their endowments are tanking. But in a world of failing businesses, American higher ed remains a bright spot, a beacon that continues to attract students from all over the world, no matter what the cost.
Larry Abramson, NPR News.