USC has enrolled more international students than any other U.S. university since 2001, and this year’s freshman class is the most international in the school’s history.
The trend in part represents a growing worldwide interest in U.S. higher education — in 2009 international students made up 3.6 percent of all U.S. college students, up from 2.9 percent in 1989 — and in part is the result of USC’s intense focus on becoming a global university.
That focus began with former President Steven B. Sample, who strove to make USC a strong presence in the Pacific Rim and helped form the Association of Pacific Rim Universities. Sample believed having a strong international population on campus could improve the experience for both international and domestic students by bringing different cultures, strengths and viewpoints together. That vision has continued under President C. L. Max Nikias.
USC is not alone in its quest to become a more global university, but as the numbers show, it has so far been the most successful. Anthony Bailey, associate provost for global initiatives, attributes this to USC’s generally high place in the rankings, like those done by U.S. News & World Report, the availability of professional programs, and USC’s location in the heart of Los Angeles.
Bailey specifically points to the Marshall School of Business and the Viterbi School of Engineering as academic units that draw a lot of international students. According to the Institute of International Education, the most popular fields of study for international students are business and engineering, and not all universities offer undergraduate business or engineering majors.
Pei-Hsuan Chu, director of USC’s Taiwan office, added that reputation and the strong alumni network also influence students’ desire to come to USC.
USC has also taken a fairly original approach to growing its international presence. The university currently has six international offices — in China, India, Korea, Mexico, Taiwan and Hong Kong— that work to develop academic and research partnerships abroad and interact with current and prospective students from those countries. Bailey said although many universities have learning centers in other countries to support students studying abroad, USC is one of few universities with such robust offices around the globe.
The international offices support the efforts of the Admissions Office — which has three full-time officers who recruit internationally — and the graduate schools in recruiting students and helping them learn more about the university. The offices can also help allay the concerns of international students, which typically center on safety and the cost of tuition, as international students are not eligible for need-based financial aid.
More critically, however, they help USC develop strong ties around the world, which leads to the continued growth in the international population at USC.
“I don’t think the school is saying we want to bring in more international students, it’s that USC has strong roots around the world, in Asia in particular,” Bailey said.
As the number of international students grows, some in the education community have raised concerns that many international students do not stay — the criticism is that students are coming to the United States to get an education, but then not using their education to benefit the country.
“Most of the graduates from Korea return to Korea,” said Steven Lee, director of USC’s South Korea office. “Career opportunities for these graduates are much better in Korea.”
Representatives from the Taiwan and Hong Kong offices echoed this sentiment, saying that especially in recent years, more graduates are returning home to find work. The tough U.S. job market is in part to blame, as well as the complicated process of getting a work visa to stay in the country.
Roy Choi, a sophomore majoring in cinema-television production, said he hopes to stay in the United States but noted that it could be complicated by paperwork.
Even if international graduates do leave the United States, Bailey said he does not think this is a problem. The goal, he noted, is not just to benefit the United States economically but to support a “cross-pollination of perspectives.”
“International students benefit us even when they go home because they’re the ones who help provide global ties and understanding and promote global peace,” Bailey said.
USC hopes to continue its quest toward globalization, both by bringing international students to campus and by growing the university’s presence abroad. There are currently plans to open an office in Brazil, and there is talk of offices in Singapore and Beijing, Bailey said. He added that administrators are also discussing the idea of a “global campus,” though the notion has yet to take a concrete form.
Laura Cueva contributed to this report.