What International Students Should Know Before Applying to U.S. Colleges

More international students are coming to U.S. colleges, and many are paying their own way.

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Just as the United States is an increasingly attractive option for foreign students pursuing a college degree, American colleges and universities are looking for more international students, too. 

More than 291,000 foreign undergraduates were enrolled in U.S. schools in the 2010-2011 school year, according to the Institute of International Education's newly released "Open Doors 2011" report. That's a 6.2 percent increase from the year before, and relatively close to the enrollment figures of international graduate students. More than 296,000 graduate students were enrolled, combining for record-high enrollment numbers of foreign students at all levels. 

Much of the rise can be credited to China, the top sending country of international students for the second year in a row—outseating India as the dominant home country for students studying abroad in the United States. The number of Chinese students studying in the United States jumped 23.3 percent from 2009-2010 to 2010-2011, the report found. Saudi Arabia sends a smaller but growing number of students as well; 43.6 percent more students studied in the United States in 2010-2011 than in the year before. 

[Get tips for international students pursuing M.B.A.'s.] 

If you, too, are interested in studying in the United States, it's important to realize that you will likely have to pay in full for your college education. In 2010-2011, 63.4 percent of international students at any degree level relied primarily on personal or family funds to pay their tuition—money that likely comes as a relief to many cash-strapped U.S. universities. Financial support from U.S. colleges, the U.S. government, private sponsors both in the U.S. and abroad, and international organizations all declined from 2009-2010 to 2010-2011. 

"International education is a growth sector for our economy," said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a pretaped segment that debuted with the report's release Monday in Washington, D.C. In fiscal year 2010 alone, international students contributed more than $21 billion to the U.S. economy—roughly double the amount they accounted for a decade ago. 

While international college students will likely bear the brunt of the financial burden of higher education, there are a few outlets to pursue for financial guidance. The Institute of International Education maintains an online directory of Funding for U.S. Study, which includes scholarship and grant opportunities, and it's always a good idea to contact the schools you're interested in with questions about paying for college. 

The University of Southern California, for instance, offers some merit aid opportunities to its international students, according to the school's Executive Director of the Office of International Services, Tony Tambascia. 

[Search scholarships for international students.] 

It's also important for students to inquire about the bang they'll get for their buck, both academically and socially. 

The University of Illinois—Urbana-Champaign enrolled 7,991 foreign students last year, according to the "Open Doors" report—the second only to USC in international student enrollment. While the increasing influx of international students adds a welcome diversity to central Illinois, it also poses a challenge to the university and the community to welcome the foreign students who are arriving at a pivotal point in their lives, says Kasey Umland, program director at the on-campus YMCA. 

"One of the things with the rise in international undergraduates that we've seen is that not only are people away from their families and lonely, but they're also going through the very important developmental experience of college—and there isn't a lot of attention spent on how that's different when you're in a new culture and also isolated from your support network," Umland notes.

To combat that, Umland's programs geared for both international and American students at the YMCA include cultural meetings over coffee, weekend performances, holiday festivities, and more. She also encourages students to seek out university-run initiatives, even those not specifically for international students, such as counseling for anyone feeling isolated and immersion trips that connect foreign students with their domestic peers.