Colleges on hunt for foreign students

Pasadena City and Glendale Community colleges continue to rank in the top 45 nationwide for recruiting international students, a burgeoning $20 billion-a-year industry that generates revenue, prestige and a wide-reaching alumni base for the campuses.

This semester, Pasadena City College enrolled 1,016 students on F-1 visas — issued by the federal government for academic pursuits — college officials said. It’s a figure that has remained relatively steady during the last seven years and has consistently placed the Pasadena campus among the top 20 community colleges nationally, according to annual rankings conducted by the Institute of International Education.

Jewel Price, dean of student services at Glendale Community College, described a banner year for international student applications. Her department processed 288 new applicants and enrolled a total of 449 new and returning F-1 visa students, a 30-student uptick compared to last year, Price said.

The Glendale campus in recent years has finished as high as 33rd in national rankings.

“That is a lot of students who applied to, and chose to enroll at, Glendale College,” Price said. “The competition for international students is really fierce. We have campuses around us who are vying for international students to attend their campuses, well-developed colleges who also have a lot to offer.”

F-1 visa students are highly coveted for a number of reasons, not least of which is the unrestricted revenue they bring to the institutions they attend.

California residents pay $36 per unit to enroll at the state’s 112 community colleges, money that is funneled back to Sacramento. Foreign students pay approximately six times as much, with the revenue going directly into the college’s discretionary fund.

At Glendale Community College, non-resident tuition has generated between $2.2 million and $3.2 million annually during the last 10 years — no small sum for a college that has had its budget whittled down by $2.5 million in the past year to about $83.5 million amid the economic downturn.

“I don’t mean to sound crass about it, but the non-resident tuition they bring in is much more significant than a local resident student,” said David Nelson, director of international recruitment and outreach for Glendale Community College. “All the UCs and the Cal States and the community colleges are vying for the market share.”

Sometimes, the enrollment of international students actually allows institutions to offer more classes than would otherwise be possible, officials said.

“If we have a course with a few international students, what they’re paying in fees can accommodate a whole section being open to all students,” said Cynthia Olivo, dean of counseling and student services at Pasadena City College.

The financial punch of foreign students extends well beyond campus perimeters, said Peggy Blumenthal, senior counselor to the president at the Institute of International Education, a nonprofit that has tracked international student data since 1919.

Foreign students — who currently number nearly 700,000 nationwide — bring about $20 billion to the U.S. economy each year, $2.8 billion of which flows into California alone, Blumenthal said.

“California is the top-ranked state receiving international students, and has been for some time,” she said.

The countries sending the most students to the United States on F-1 visas are China, India and South Korea, according to the Institute of International Education.

The United States sends 260,000 students abroad each year, making the enrichment that incoming F-1 visa students bring all the more important to their host institutions, experts said.

“We believe it adds to the diversity and enhances the community at PCC,” said Pasadena City College trustee Geoffrey Baum. “Our students are going out into a global marketplace, and to study alongside international students helps prepare them for successful careers and future academic opportunities.”

Competition for the students is vigorous. Many institutions send staff to college fairs overseas, while others employ agents who are paid per head, a controversial practice, Blumenthal said.

Glendale Community College officials are even considering a $30-million, 175-room dormitory facility that could make the campus more attractive to foreign students.

But officials at Glendale and Pasadena colleges said their best recruiting tools are current and former students who speak highly of their experience to friends back home.

Local students are sometimes struck by how much their international counterparts pay per unit, F-1 visa holders said, but added that the price tag is no deterrent.

Glendale Community College student Kinga Modos, 33, originally from Hungary, said that Southern California’s demographic melting pot makes it easy to fit in.

“We get so much new experience here,” Modos said. “It is the education, life experience, meeting new people. It is priceless.”

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