Enrollment surges for foreign graduate students

The number of graduate students to flock to GW on academic visas skyrocketed 40 percent since last fall, a surge administrators attribute to wider research offerings, foreign recruitment and an emphasis on becoming a global institution.

There are 1,212 Colonials on student visas enrolled this fall – nearly double the number from four years ago. The number of non-U.S. undergraduates – which has grown nearly 60 percent in the last eight years – will continue to inflate as the University boosts its globalization and recruiting efforts abroad.

The increase far outpaces last year’s growth rate of about 20 percent, as well as the 8-percent increase in those types of students from fall 2009 to fall 2010. The figures include students on F-1 full student visas and J-1 exchange visitor visas, which are given to students who study at GW for just one or two semesters.

Director of the International Services Office Greg Leonard said the foreign graduate students are attracted to the University’s increased focus on research, particularly in engineering fields.

“Everyone expects to see the number of international students, professors and researchers to continue to grow,” Leonard said. “We have a good push on getting more research underway, and when you get more research underway, you get more graduate research assistants to help you with that.”

And as the University sets aside more money for research and academic programs, Leonard said the office is already gearing up for another record-breaking year.

The University has seen increasing numbers of foreign undergraduate students – who typically pay full tuition – and graduate students who either pay their own way or nab paid research or teaching positions as doctoral candidates.

GW’s strategic plan, slated for release this fall, doubles down on globalization over the next decade as a means to boost enrollment dollars and campus diversity. Leonard said he thinks it will draw more students to GW.

“[International student enrollment] is going to be one of the areas of the University that will continue to grow. We’ll have to figure out how we’ll handle that,” Leonard added.

The office estimates that the total international student population will reach about 2,700 students this fall, up from 2,553 students last year. Over the last decade, the number of international students has increased 25 percent.

“There’s no question that a lot of different parts of the University will be challenged by the increases in international student enrollment,” Leonard said, citing the counseling center, the career center and the housing office as potential areas that could be strained by a growing international student population. “It’s really important to hold their hands,” Leonard said. “Most of them are going through some different, cultural adjustments.”

The office created the International Partnership and Programming Committee this summer to identify ways to better support international students.

Assistant Vice President of Student Academic Support Services Andy Sonn, who oversees the office, said he is looking to evaluate and expand its current programming, which has revolved around its Conversation, Communication and Culture program since 2003.

“It’s a really important dialogue to start,” Sonn said.

Karin Fischer, a senior reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education, said universities face challenges in helping students overcome cultural hurdles.

Most international students at GW come from China, South Korea and India – countries that Fischer said typically have classroom traditions that break from the U.S. norm, along with language barriers that can require additional training and support.

Graduate students are more likely to make their decisions on where to attend school on a practical basis, Fischer said, and because GW is not facing budget cuts like state schools, it can continue to expand its research opportunities. Three-quarters of international students at GW are graduate students.

GW has consistently outpaced national trends for international student enrollment since the 2008-2009 academic year, when its growth rate stood at 15.5 percent and the national average was three times less.

New York and Boston universities beat out GW and sit among the nation’s top 12 schools hosting the most international students, according to 2011 report by the Institute for International Education.

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