US Sees Growth in Foreign Student Enrollment - for Now Series: African Students (L. to R.) Gloria Mudogo, Helena Mensah-Bonsu, Chao Sio, and Rita Thanga Take a Break at Northeastern University in Boston. A New Report Shows a Rise in International Students in the US, but Officials Suggest Cautious Optimism. BY JOHN NORDELL - STAFF

Article excerpt

One way to measure the strength of a nation is look at its gross national product or its military firepower. Another is to see how many foreign students opt to go to school there.

After three years of stagnation, the number of international college students coming to the United States is back up 5.1 percent, according to a report released yesterday by the New York-based Institute of International Education, the leading nonprofit organization on this issue. "For the first time in several years there has been an increase, and everyone expected there to be no increase because of the Asian currency crisis," says IIE president Allan Goodman.

Until this year's "sudden upswing," there had been concern that the US "was losing its competitive edge in the international education market," the report concludes. It also suggests that "the widespread fears of marked enrollment drops due to the consequences of Asian financial turmoil may not come to pass." But IIE officials caution that their analysis is based on surveys from the 1997-98 school year. More recent indicators suggest that the US may yet have to defend its clout in the rapidly expanding market in global education. "The world-class quality of American universities is in part that they attract the best and the brightest from other parts of the world. To the extent that students are making other decisions, we need to be concerned," says Peggy Blumenthal, IIE vice president for educational services. The US has been the No. 1 destination of the world's newly mobile students, ever since transcontinental flight opened up in the 1950s. Last year, the tuition payments and living expenses of nearly half a million international students amounted to $7.5 billion for American universities and colleges. For some universities and graduate departments, their presence became critical. Most foreign students pay their own way, and by the 1980s, many college administrators were building their budgets around a continuing flow of high-pay students from abroad, says IIE's Goodman. In some science and engineering graduate departments, these students account for more than half the enrollment. By 1995, the US share of this market had slipped from 40 percent in the 1980s to 30 percent, according to the United Nations. New competitors stepped up incentives and marketing. Australia changed its visa requirements to allow foreign students to stay and work after graduation, for example, and German universities began offering graduate courses in English. …