By Kyna Rubin

U.S. university presidents concerned about drops in East Asian students since post-September 11 visa restrictions made coming here more difficult may begin to feel more at ease as the trend may be reversing - although that's no reason to stop being concerned about global competitiveness for international students. According to the Institute of International Education's (IIE) 2006 Open Doors report, numbers for all East Asian students (except those from Japan) on U.S. campuses increased in 2005 - ;2006 - by more than 10 percent from South Korea, 9 percent from Hong Kong, nearly 8 percent from Taiwan, and 0.1 percent from China. This last figure is low but significant in that it marks the first increase since 2002. Even though China's college students still perceive securing a U.S. visa as tough, over the last few years the State Department has improved the visa process. To underscore this message, in November 2006 U.S. secretary of education Margaret Spellings and a delegation of U.S. government officials and college presidents spent a week in Japan, South Korea, and China assuring students there that they are welcomed in the United States and that the visa procedure has been expedited.

That trip was in part a response to the keen competition with Australia, Britain, and Canada for East Asian students that the U.S. has faced for some time, but especially since 2001. In terms of sheer numbers, the U.S. hosts considerably more PRC students (62,000) than its rivals do. But the recent modest boost in PRC enrollees in U.S. institutions is a tiny fraction of those other countries' latest growth from within the same pool. Between 2004 and 2005 the number of Chinese students in Australia skyrocketed by almost 33 percent, in Britain by 10 percent, and in Canada by 3 percent - because of aggressive public relations, programs tailored to the China market, and relative to the U.S., lower tuition rates and easier-to-obtain visas. These are clear markers that the U.S. needs to continue its efforts to attract Chinese students because other nations are becoming attractive to them as well.

Visa problems aside, cost continues to prevent more East Asians from studying at U.S. universities. Rising tuition remains a barrier for Chinese and Japanese students without scholarships, though Japan is a special case where students' decisions about study abroad are currently colored by multiple factors. As the fourth leading place of origin for students in the United States, Japan alone among East Asian countries saw its student numbers in the United States plunge more than 8 percent between 2004 - 2005 and 2005 - 2006. Why? Explanations go beyond rising U.S. tuition rates to include a decline in the number of 18-year-olds in Japan that has resulted in greater opportunities to enter university at home, more competitive domestic college offerings and fee structures than in the past, and skepticism about the benefits of a U.S. degree in the Japanese job market.

One player to watch in East Asia is Vietnam. Although the country ranks 24th in Open Doors' list of places of origin, its 4,600 students in the United States in 2005 - ;2006 represent a dramatic 25 percent jump in numbers from the year before. This impressive leap marks the sharpest surge of the top 25 sending countries and the third consecutive double-digit gain for Vietnam. As a nation with an ambitious higher education reform agenda, a thirst for study abroad, and an 8.4 percent economic growth rate that is enabling more families to afford an overseas tuition (two-thirds of its students in the United States are self-financing), Vietnam will be a market that U.S. universities can probably expect to grow. In fact, according to IIE-Vietnam, the U.S. has recently surpassed Great Britain and Singapore in the number of Vietnamese students it hosts, putting the United States just behind Australia.