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Originally published March 22, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 22, 2008 at 3:16 AM

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Universities see spike in applications from abroad

For overseas students, a U.S. college education has suddenly gotten much cheaper — and many more are applying to study here. University of Washington officials...

Seattle Times higher-education reporter

For overseas students, a U.S. college education has suddenly gotten much cheaper — and many more are applying to study here.

University of Washington officials say the number of foreigners applying to be freshmen this fall is up a whopping 40 percent.

And the UW is not alone: Foreign applications are up 32 percent at Washington State University. Across the 10-campus University of California system, foreign freshman applications are up 25 percent this year and 50 percent over the past two years.

The tumbling dollar, experts say, is one factor.

"Our major [college] competitor has been the U.K. But the pound is so strong," said Madeleine Green, vice president for international initiatives at the Washington, D.C.-based American Council on Education. "Every day, we get cheaper than Europe and the U.K."

At state schools, tuition costs are often three or four times higher for foreign students, making currency fluctuations that much more important. At the UW, for instance, tuition is $6,400 a year for state residents — who are subsidized by Washington taxpayers — while out-of-state applicants pay $22,100.

Nearly 2,200 people from outside the U.S. have applied to be freshmen at the UW next fall, along with another 7,500 from other states. They are part of a record year in which almost 20,000 people have applied for 5,500 slots. Total UW freshman applications are up 12 percent.

But unlike many colleges, the UW limits students from other states and other countries to 20 percent of its freshman class. Consequently, those slots are becoming ever more competitive.

At Seattle University, foreign freshman applications are up 16 percent this year, to 304. Like many private schools, Seattle U. doesn't charge a different rate for out-of-state or foreign students or limit their numbers.

"Hopefully, we'll see much more of them come. It's such a favorable exchange rate," said Michael McKeon, the university's dean of admissions.

The falling dollar is not the only factor driving foreign applications, Green said. There is also huge demand from students in China and India, where leaders haven't been able to build new colleges fast enough. And the U.S. has smoothed out security-related visa delays added after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Interest from abroad

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Jasmeet Singh, president of the UW's Indian Student Association, said her e-mail box has been flooded this year with questions from India. Prospective students want to know about where they might live, the social scene and academic life.

"It's a huge shock for someone to come from India to America," she said.

One UW student who made that move is Koshal Thirumalai, 21, a junior majoring in computer engineering.

"I definitely wanted to go to school in Washington or California," he said. "It doesn't make sense to go anywhere else if you are into computers. That's pretty much where the tech hubs are."

In his home country, he applied to the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology, but didn't make the cut. Only about 1 percent of applicants are accepted, he said. So he moved to the U.S. and into the Redmond home of his older brother, who'd earlier landed a job with Microsoft.

"The biggest change was the attitude. The Asian culture is more family-oriented, and friends get together every day. Here, it was more like everyone was minding their own business," he said. "But that's good, in a way, when you get used to it. ... I love the people here and the culture here."

When Thirumalai began working for UW tech support, he adopted an American accent on the phone so callers wouldn't get mad thinking their call had been diverted abroad.

Like many foreign students, Thirumalai hopes a company in Washington will want to hire him and sponsor him for a work visa.

More diversity

Philip Ballinger, the UW's director of admissions, said foreign students add a "wonderful diversity" to campus.

"All our students are richer for it," he said. "The best thing is that it all happens unconsciously, often during fun, extracurricular activity."

He said the university doesn't actively recruit freshmen from overseas and hasn't done anything differently this year to contribute to the application spike.

"Even though the foreign-application pool has grown tremendously, it's not a disadvantage to Washington students at all," Ballinger pointed out. "We just can't take all those nonresidents."

A 12 percent increase in foreign applications this year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology indicates the dollar's fortunes are not the only factor in play. MIT is rare in that it offers full financial aid to foreign students, which many tap into.

Stuart Schmill, MIT's interim director of admissions, said the university has received 3,100 foreign freshman applicants this year. Only about 83 of them will be accepted, to make up the 8 percent cap of the freshman class.

"As the Internet propagates, more students are finding out about us," Schmill said. "Our Web site has done a good job at promoting MIT."

China leads the way

Perhaps most striking in the numbers is the demand from China. At WSU, freshman applications from China are up more than tenfold in the past three years, and China has now topped South Korea for the most international applications there. The UW has received nearly three times as many applicants from China this year as from any other foreign country.

Angela Zhang, external vice president of the UW's Chinese Student Association, said a celebration of the Chinese New Year last month at UW's Kane Hall filled the auditorium with more than 700 people — by far the largest turnout for the event.

But while many colleges are welcoming the increase in international interest, Green said, some are becoming more dependent on foreign students — and the big tuition dollars they bring — to balance the budget.

"There's a tension there, because many colleges are starved for revenue," Green said. "But a legitimate question for institutions is: 'How much is too much of a good thing?' "

Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or nperry@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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