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Foreign students in US
Nancy Wennan Zhang, a master’s degree candidate in digital arts from China at the Pratt Institute in New York. Credit: Nianjia Han, Pratt Institute

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Pursuing her dream of a Hollywood digital animation job, Nancy Wennan Zhang did the same thing thousands of other Chinese students do: She went to an American college.

Zhang, 29, completed her bachelor’s degree at a Chinese university, but traveled nearly 7,000 miles from her small hometown to Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute to study for her master’s degree in digital arts. She expects to graduate next year.

“America has the best education in the world,” she said. “And it has Hollywood and Disney. Of course, that’s my dream.”

Chinese students such as Zhang help make higher education of international students a $30 billion-a-year American business. Nearly a million such students attended U.S. universities and colleges last year, according to the Institute of International Education.

Almost a third of those were from China — which means that China’s economic slump could hit U.S. institutions hard. China’s economy, the world’s second largest, is slowing, and exports and share prices in the stock market there are down. And while the numbers of Chinese undergraduate and graduate students in the U.S. increased last year by 13 and 4 percent, respectively, that pace was down considerably from the 18 and 12 percent growth of 2013-14.

Related: Student subsidies of classmates’ tuition add to anger over rising college costs

That decline, along with aggressive competition for international students and mounting scrutiny of visas, could mean yet more trouble for American universities and colleges that increasingly rely on full-paying foreign students both to subsidize Americans’ tuition and to make up for budget shortfalls caused by drops in both domestic enrollment and state government support.

“If you have a very high percentage of your students from China, that seems risky.”

“If they don’t have a plan, that’s a problem,” said Sandy Baum, a professor of higher-education administration at George Washington University. For example, she said, “If you have a very high percentage of your students from China, that seems risky.”

And many universities do. Although the Institute of International Education report didn’t break down which schools have the most Chinese students, it said leading hosts such as the University of Southern California, Columbia University and New York University each have more than 11,500 foreign students, including significant Chinese contingents.

Such universities say China’s recession hasn’t yet affected them, but it has made them rethink their reliance on students from any single country.

Related: Why are fewer foreign students heading to the U.S. and more to Australia?

“We are not particularly worried because it’s such an enormous market,” said Tim Brunold, dean of admission at the University of Southern California. “If anything, we don’t expect a large growth from China, but not much of a downturn either. We think we’ve found an equilibrium with China.”

At the University of Illinois, perennially one of the top host schools for international students, more than 5,200 Chinese students are now enrolled, said Martin McFarlane, director of international student and scholar services — more than half of all international students on campus, he said, a first for the university.

Yet McFarlane also said he isn’t worried about the impact of the Chinese economic downturn.

“It’s not that concerning because the University of Illinois has always had a large international enrollment,” he said. “If the Chinese population dips, some other group will fill that gap.”

But China isn’t the only place in the world from which attracting students may get tougher.

India, which sends the second-biggest number of students to the U.S., is spending $3.4 billion establishing 278 new universities and 388 colleges at home that may absorb some people who might otherwise have gone abroad. And in Brazil, because of economic troubles, the budget for an ambitious scholarship program that sent 26,300 students to the United States last year has been cut by more than 40 percent this year and frozen for next year, with zero new scholarships expected.

Related: Colleges ratchet up recruiting of applicants — just to turn them down

Meanwhile, lawmakers including Senator Dianne Feinstein have proposed changes to the student visa system, including stricter background checks and closer monitoring of international students once they arrive in the United States.

Foreign students in US
Vardhan Mehta, an undergraduate from India studying architecture at the Pratt Institute in New York. Credit: Nishika Bhagat, Pratt Institute

Such political and economic volatility should give universities pause when relying on international enrollment, Baum said. Yet the number of campuses with more than 1,000 foreign students has grown over the past 10 years, from 145 to 245.

Compounding that reliance, some public universities whose state budget allocations have been cut are charging higher tuition for international students. The 11,330 international students at Arizona State University, for example, which has seen some of the nation’s worst budget cuts since 2008, paid significantly higher tuition than other nonresidents — nearly $2,000 more for undergraduates and $1,350 more for graduate students this year. The University of Wisconsin system in April approved a $1,000 surcharge for international undergraduates. Other universities that charge international students more than domestic ones include Ohio State, Michigan State, Pennsylvania State and Purdue; Purdue’s add-on is also $2,000 per student, and generates $10 million a year.

Those higher fees are subsidizing lower-paying American students, the universities say. Arizona State increased international enrollment by more than 2,600 students last year, a 30 percent jump over the year before, and the dean of admission and financial aid services, Melissa Pizzo, conceded that the increase was partly to make up for budget cuts.

The positive impact of international study goes beyond campuses. Cities including New York, Los Angeles, Boston and Chicago benefit from huge numbers of foreign students. Foreign students also often begin long-term relationships with American counterparts that pay off later when they return home and establish themselves in business, government, or other fields.

In addition to the political and economic volatility, global competition for international students has grown intense. Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom have all pushed hard to lure foreign students, and China itself has suddenly become a major player in international education.

China last year passed the United Kingdom as the hosting country with the third-highest number of international students, said Rajika Bhandari, a deputy vice president at the Institute of International Education.

“There are new players in the market,” she said. “And the story is not just about Australia or the U.K., or even the United States.”

That’s one reason the National Association for College Admission Counseling reversed a ban on paying commissions to recruiters who sign up international students, as universities in rival countries do — and even though U.S. universities are prohibited by law from paying commissions for domestic students.

But not everyone believes that there’s a threat to the number of students from abroad enrolling in American colleges and universities, despite the worrying signs from China in particular.

While the numbers of Chinese undergraduate and graduate students in the U.S. increased last year by 13 and 4 percent, respectively, the pace has slowed considerably from the 18 and 12 percent growth of 2013-14.

Many Chinese families have saved their entire lives to send their children to college, said Thomas Gold, a UC Berkeley sociology professor and expert on modern China, and China’s harsh political climate has led more families to seek educational refuge overseas.

“The Chinese take a very long-term view,” Gold said. “If the economy turns down, one of the things they won’t cut back on is opportunities for their kids.”

Nor are all those new universities in India likely to be up and running very soon. Nearly 133,000 Indian students studied in the United States last year, up 29 percent over the year before.

American universities and colleges also hope to bolster international enrollment by appealing to students who wish to study something other than the traditionally popular STEM fields — science, technology, engineering, and math.

“I think institutions are beginning to realize that while many international students are still interested in STEM, there are quite a number of students interested in other fields,” Bhandari said.

While more Indian students studied math and computer science last year than the year before, according to the Institute of International Education, and the number of Chinese students remained steady across academic disciplines, large numbers of international students overall are shifting to fields such as legal studies and business.

Related: U.S. university enrollment continues to slide

USC has seen a steady increase in the number of international students studying non-STEM disciplines, said Brunold, the dean of admission there. For example, many more Indian students are applying to the university’s celebrated film school, he said.

Among the international visitors who are branching out is Vardhan Mehta, a 19-year-old architecture undergraduate at the Pratt Institute from the central Indian city of Indore.

Despite improvements in India’s higher education system, Mehta said, Indian students are realizing that American schools offer more creative and innovative programs than Indian schools.

“A few years ago, everyone wanted to be an engineer or a doctor,” he said. “It’s only recently that Indian people are more interested in more eccentric fields. All my friends who are interested in the arts are in the States.”

That could be a good thing for public universities in particular, which Baum said are running out of other options to make up for shortfalls in state funding.

“It’s not that easy to come up with a revenue source that’s not risky,” she said.

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