The number of international college students in America is up by 6 percent, due largely to a surge from China, whose residents now account for 1 of every 4 foreign students on U.S. campuses.
The increase of 23 percent involving a country already the biggest exporter of students to this nation is among the findings of a report released today by the Institute of International Education.
The study found that international enrollment in 2011-12 reached a record 764,495 students, a total that is 41,218 greater than the previous year and the sixth consecutive annual gain. In all, 31 percent more international students attend colleges and universities in the U.S. than a decade ago.
"That's huge," said Peggy Blumenthal, the senior counselor to the president of the New York City-based institute.
Pennsylvania, with 33,398 international students on its campuses, is the sixth most popular destination of the 50 states and District of Columbia and saw one of the biggest percentage gains among the leading 10 host states. Pennsylvania, Florida and Indiana each saw growth of roughly 10 percent.
The year's "Open Doors" report is published in partnership with the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. It is based on data from 3,000 accredited U.S. colleges and universities.
A separate tally by the institute found the number of Americans studying abroad grew by 1 percent to 273,996 in 2010-11, the most current year for which study-abroad data were available.
Officials involved in the survey said the value of international exchange goes beyond the $22.7 billion it pumps into the U.S. economy.
They said the influx of foreign students here and study by U.S. students abroad enrich classrooms and communities, exposing students to different cultures and perspectives at a time when global competency is increasingly important to career success. And the bonds those students form enhance America's image overseas and foster cooperation by young adults who one day may need to work across national boundaries on issues from security to climate change.
"They are going to be partners in solving a lot of our global challenges," said Ann Stock, assistant U.S. secretary of state who took part in a briefing for reporters on the findings. "They literally are in charge of our future relations with the rest of the world."
International students account for 4 percent of U.S. college enrollment. They are eligible for far less financial aid than U.S. students and often pay their own way, meaning schools -- including public universities facing decreased state aid -- often can fill a seat on campus at less expense.
Ms. Blumenthal said the steady enrollment growth reflects the vigor with which campuses here pursue international students and suggests that those students "realize the value of a U.S. degree for their future careers."
Students enrolled at two Pittsburgh campuses seemed to share that view during interviews last week.
Long Tu, 22, came to the U.S. in August to attend his top-choice school, Carnegie Mellon University. He had applied as well to a university in Canada, but decided America had more educational opportunities.
The information networking master's student said he is unsure if he will return to China, but he thinks an American degree will be valued at home and abroad.
"I think it is beneficial for me to do it either way," he said. "I think a degree can help me find a perfect job in the U.S., and if I choose to go back to China it will also help me find a very good job."
Mr. Tu is receiving some financial aid from the university this semester, but will pay the rest of his tuition out of pocket.
Lauren Su, 20, has not received financial aid from the University of Pittsburgh, but is able to attend with help from her parents. She has wanted to come to the United States ever since reading a magazine article in middle school about two Chinese students who studied in America.
"I felt excited after I read that article. They had a good experience and stayed with host families," she said.
Ms. Su, an accounting student, said there also is peer pressure to obtain an American degree because so many of her friends in China have done just that.
According to "Open Doors," enrollment from China grew to 194,029 from 157,558 the previous year, an increase approaching the size of the entire international enrollment gain across the U.S.
Thirteen of the top 25 countries of origin sent more students than last year, though three of the top five senders saw declines.
After China, other nations among the top five senders of students to the U.S. were India at 100,270, down nearly 4 percent; South Korea at 72,295, down about 1 percent; Saudi Arabia at 34,139, up by 50 percent; and Canada, with 26,821 students, a decline of nearly 3 percent.
Factors from government aid policies to natural disasters influenced where students chose to study.
For instance, a recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan are believed largely responsible for a 33 percent drop in the number of U.S. students studying in that nation. A scholarship program instituted by Saudi Arabia's government is credited with the 50 percent jump in enrollment by those students on campuses here.
And while tensions have run high between the U.S. and Iranian governments, the number of students from that nation studying here grew by 24 percent to 6,982, due largely to efforts by the U.S. and colleges here to encourage those students to enroll.
That required a balancing act between welcoming those students and protecting the nation's security by prohibiting them from pursuing study in technical or sensitive fields and barring them from participating in federally sponsored research projects, Ms. Blumenthal said.
It's hoped that in the future, she said, "those people will really be the bridge" between their nation and the U.S.
The fields of study that drew the most students to the U.S. in 2011-12 were business and management, followed by engineering, math and computer science and social sciences, the institute said.
Among institutions, the five biggest magnets were the University of Southern California, the University of Illinois -- Urbana-Champaign, New York University, Purdue University's main campus and Columbia University.
Penn State University's main campus, which had the 12th-largest international enrollment in the U.S., topped all other campuses in this state with 6,075 students. Next came the University of Pennsylvania with 5,296, students; Carnegie Mellon with 4,049 students, Pitt at 2,810; and Drexel University at 2,684.
Among U.S. students studying abroad, the United Kingdom was the most popular destination followed by Italy, Spain, France and China, the institute said.