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From overseas to the American community college

Growing an international presence on two-year-college campuses
University Business, July 2015
Santa Monica College hosts a festival to celebrate students from more than 100 nations who attend classes on campus.
Santa Monica College hosts a festival to celebrate students from more than 100 nations who attend classes on campus.

Lone Star College has the fourth highest number of international students among U.S. two-year institutions, but the Houston-area school does not recruit abroad aggressively, says Nithy Sevanthinathan, the executive director of international student services.

While officials at Lone Star—which has a total enrollment of 95,000—attend job fairs overseas, its international marketing is a bit more grassroots. “Most of the international students who attend Lone Star College learn about our educational programs through family or friends in the Houston area,” Sevanthinathan says.

Many community colleges rely on local immigrant communities to spread the word with friends and family in foreign countries, though some institutions do recruit international students actively, says Wayne Wheeler, the director of international programs at the American Association of Community Colleges.

Continuing a 10-year trend, international student enrollment at U.S. community colleges grew again in 2014 after hitting a peak during the Great Recession. Nearly 88,000 international students attended community colleges in 2013-14, compared to almost 96,000 in 2008-09 and 82,000 in 2004-05, according to the Institute of International Education’s most recent “Open Doors” report.

Many international students want to transfer to four-year institutions to get bachelor’s degrees. Community colleges are attractive because of significantly lower tuition and more flexible standards for language proficiency, among other factors, Wheeler says.

More colleges also have implemented programs that allow international students to earn high school diplomas and associate’s degrees at the same time.

The English-as-a-second language program draws students to Montgomery College in Maryland, which has the 10th highest international enrollment.

Top 10 community colleges for international enrollment

  1. Houston Community College System, Houston—5,208 students
  2. Santa Monica College, Santa Monica, Calif.—3,482
  3. De Anza College, Cupertino, Calif.—2,860
  4. Lone Star College, The Woodlands, Texas—1,968
  5. Seattle Central Community College, Seattle—1,952
  6. Diablo Valley College, Pleasant Hill, Calif.—1,918
  7. Northern Virginia Community College, Annandale, Va.—1,869
  8. Green River Community College, Auburn, Wash.—1,619
  9. Miami Dade College, Miami—1,606
  10. Montgomery College, Rockville, Md.—1,518

SOURCE: Institute for International Education “Open Doors 2014” report

“Students can not only learn to speak the language, they can be with many other students who are learning just like they are, while taking credit classes,” says Decena Smith, a student development counselor at Montgomery’s Rockville Campus.

Each campus in the Lone Star system has an international student adviser who can answer questions about admissions, academics and medical insurance, among other issues. Lone Star has also partnered with four-year institutions so students can transfer easily. “Small classes help these students acclimate more quickly, which leads to greater success,” Sevanthinathan says.

Starting out on a smaller scale, Jackson College in Michigan doubled its international student enrollment to 17 last fall and expects to double that again next school year. Melanie Maree, director of the school’s recently opened International Student Institute, recruits in Brazil, China, Colombia, Ecuador and Panama, among other countries. She also uses social media to spread information about Jackson’s academic programs—which include nursing, business and a new bachelor’s degree in systems engineering.

International students pay the $7,585 out-of-state tuition, still significantly lower than what they’d pay to enroll in a four-year institution, Maree says. The 5,500-student school also offers on-campus housing and support services, such as an international student organization with language assistance. “Being able to start with lower tuition is very attractive,” Maree says. “[Internationals] really get to know the American system to be able to smoothly move to a four-year school.”

China sent the most community college students to the U.S., at 17 percent, followed by South Korea (11 percent), Vietnam (7.4 percent), Japan (6.3 percent) and Mexico (4.3 percent), the IIE research found. Total international enrollment in all U.S. colleges and universities hit a record high 886,000 in 2013-14, according to the IIE.

A 2014 report by the American Association of Community Colleges found international students at community colleges inject $2.46 billion annually into the U.S. economy.

As for domestic community college students—especially in rural areas— international classmates can help broaden horizons, Wheeler says. “Because of demographics of domestic students, it’s unlikely many will have the opportunity to study abroard. Having international students provides an international experience and diversifies campus.”

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