To fully appreciate the reach of China's revving economy, look a world away at who's showing up with suitcases at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
Three years ago, 32 students from China were enrolled on the rural campus. By this fall, the number had more than tripled to 106.
Sure, it's a modest sum compared with the 1,638 Chinese students attending Penn State University, up 38 percent in just one year, or enrollments of 789 and 782 Chinese students, respectively, at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. Both Pittsburgh schools saw double-digit gains this year.
Just the same, the trend at IUP illustrates one reason why a national report being released today shows China has become the top sender of college students to the United States. Experts say the flow of students from that country is permeating not only the major cities and campuses with the highest profiles abroad, but a much wider swath of schools.
The surge also reflects intensifying efforts at recruiting by American schools including IUP, which has formed relationships with several universities in that country.
"If you're asking me, I would say it's a big part of our future," said Michele Petrucci, IUP's assistant vice president for international education and global engagement.
Nationwide, the number of Chinese college students in this country jumped by 30 percent to 127,628 in 2009-10, pushing past India, which had been the top sender for nearly a decade, according to the annual "Open Doors" report from the Institute of International Education. India's total grew by almost 2 percent to 104,897 in 2009-10, the most recent year for which complete national data is available.
So sharp was the rise in Chinese enrollment that America saw a 3 percent overall gain in international students to 690,923 students, even though more than half of the top 25 sending countries saw declines.
Officials with the institute say the more modest overall growth last year likely is tied to the economic downturn. A smaller sampling of campuses this fall suggests the numbers may be improving.
China's growing presence overseas reflects among other things its emerging middle class, an economy that has fared better than those of other countries of late and a one-child government policy that means parents are focusing their resources and college aspirations on a single son or daughter, said Peggy Blumenthal, institute executive vice president.
Families of international students qualify for far less financial help to attend American schools, and in many cases, must pay their own way.
Ms. Blumenthal said the trend shows that America offers "the kind of creative, entrepreneurial skills that China needs" and bodes well for future relations with the superpower.
"They go back to China profoundly aware of differences between our countries, but also our shared values," she said. "We are sending back people who are more capable of becoming friends of America."
The institute also reported today that the number of Americans studying abroad in 2008-09 dipped by nearly 1 percent to 260,327, with increased interest in less traditional destinations. The institute said there are indications that those numbers are beginning to rebound.
The Chinese wave is being greeted enthusiastically at colleges that increasingly factor overseas enrollment into their growth plans. Several Western Pennsylvania campuses, from Penn State branches to Chatham University, have said in recent years that they see international students as one way to offset projected declines in the region's high school graduates.
Years back, Chinese enrollment at IUP was mainly limited to graduate programs, Dr. Petrucci said. Now undergraduates account for about 60 percent of Chinese enrollment, including many recruited to study business, she said.
Initially, that was IUP sophomore Yu Zheng "Nick" Gao's major, but he's now studying respiratory care and intends to find work one day in a hospital, either in this country or back home.
Mr. Gao, 20, who first heard of IUP from an uncle in New Jersey, decided to enroll based in part on his online research of the campus and advice from an IUP professor and family friend who spoke highly of the place.
Initially, Mr. Gao was homesick when he arrived at age 18 from Tianjin, a major Chinese city. He had to adjust to small community life "where after 8 or 9 o'clock there's nobody on the street."
But he's happy with his move and the campus environment. "People are friendly," he said.
IUP said the influx is beneficial to students from both countries.
"Our students need to know more about China for the 21st century," Dr. Petrucci said. "Chinese students are looking to differentiate themselves back home. An American degree is one way to do that."
The Open Doors report is based on a survey of 3,000 accredited U.S. institutions. The report found that the top five sending countries accounted for 52 percent of all international students in the United States. China by itself accounts for nearly one in five.
After that country and India, others in the top five were South Korea, which sent 72,153 students, 4 percent fewer than last year; Canada, whose total slipped by 5 percent to 28,145; and Taiwan, down 5 percent to 26,685.
Along with China, only Saudi Arabia had an increase greater than 20 percent, sending 15,810 students, a 25 percent increase. Four countries had increases greater than 20 percent the previous year.
Japan, sixth in the number of students enrolled in this country, saw the biggest percentage decline, down 15 percent to 24,842.
California attracted more international students than any other state, and the University of Southern California, with 7,987 international students, was the top attracting institution.
Pennsylvania ranked seventh in the number of international students. Penn State's main campus had the largest number, 4,561; followed by the University of Pennsylvania, 4,522; Carnegie Mellon, 3,527; the University of Pittsburgh main campus, 2,415; and Temple University, 1,885.
Bill Schackner: email@example.com or 412-263-1977.