Jump in international students helps outlook

November 30, 2009
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LANSING — Musa Milupi says getting an education in the United States is a privilege for people from his home country, Zambia.

The number of international students in Michigan and across the United States is increasing, and the presence of foreign students carries a big economic impact, said Milupi, a sports management major at Grand Valley State University.

“This is really encouraging,” said Milupi. “It shows that opportunities are opening up for everyone. I know that quite a lot of international students want to pursue a higher education here, but the majority of those don’t have that privilege due to financial circumstances.”

Mary Eilleen Lyon, assistant vice president for news and information services at Grand Valley, said the university has more than doubled its number of international students in the past eight years. They increased to 307 this fall from 283 last year, and that’s up from 144 in fall 2001.

“We continue to look for qualified students and to expand our international student population.”

The economic impact of international students on the state is significant, research shows.

The Institute of International Education, a New York-based nonprofit organization, reported that 22,967 international students paid Michigan public and private universities $428.4 million for tuition and fees in 2008. Those students spent another $353.3 million for their dependents and living expenses. They contributed $525.5 million to the state’s economy after subtracting $256.3 million in aid from universities.

Michigan is the eighth-largest host state for international students, up 8 percent from 2007, according to the institute. California remains the leading host state.

Out-of-state students contribute substantially to universities’ economy, officials said.

“Most schools have an out-of-state tuition that is about twice the in-state rate,” said Joseph Godwin, associate vice president for academic affairs at Grand Valley. “This fall, 977 of the 24,408 students are not Michigan residents. If all of them paid out-of-state tuition, it’d amount to extra tuition of about $4 million.”

However, some programs discount that rate to diversify their student population, said Godwin. “Our efforts to attract students from other states and countries are geared more to attracting a diverse student body than to attracting extra tuition dollars.”

Cindy Paavola, communications and marketing director at Northern Michigan University, said her institution has a large population of out-of-state U.S. students.

“Recruiting outside of the state is critical to NMU’s growth as a university and the well-being of Marquette County’s economy,” said Paavola. “If NMU hadn’t strategically recruited outside of Michigan and the Upper Peninsula, the university would be much smaller today.”

The decline in state appropriations puts pressure on the university’s budget, she said.

“For the ninth consecutive year, NMU will need to make budget cuts, reallocate funds and raise tuition to be able to offer a high-quality academic and collegiate experience,” said Paavola.

Michael Boulus, executive director of the Presidents Council, State Universities of Michigan, said Michigan lags in higher education investment.

For 2009, the state cut funding for higher education per student by $2,852, he said. Tuition is now the major funding source for state universities — about 67 percent of total revenue – the reverse of what it was 15 years ago.

Dapeng Liu, a Ph.D. student in computer science at Wayne State University from China, said international students are essential to the survival of universities.

“In the past, most international Ph.D. students got financial aid, and they were critical to the academic research,” said Liu. “Now, more and more students are paying tuition and fees themselves. They contribute a lot of money to WSU.”

But Hua Zou, a Michigan State University master’s student in business administration from China, said out-of-state tuition is too high.

“MSU is an open and diversified environment for students,” said Zou. “It’s beneficial for both university and students. But the university should be more strict in choosing students rather than focusing on funding and viewing these students as tuition providers.”

MSU Vice President for University Relations Terry Denbow said tuition is a sure-fire investment in the future.

“MSU’s tuition is set at an intersection — where cost and quality meet,” said Denbow. “That intersection is known as ‘value.’ Tuition shouldn’t be one cent more or one cent less than what it takes to assure value.

“Michigan has been disinvesting in higher education, but MSU will never disinvest in the state of Michigan. We’ve countered increased tuition rates with higher financial aid increases, but we made MSU a more efficient and effective university,” he said.

Grand Valley’s Lyon said international students contribute to a university’s academic and social cultures, apart from their economic impact.

“They’re a vital part of Grand Valley’s culture,” she said. “They bring new opinions, views, outlooks and lively class discussion to the classroom. International students are ambassadors not only of their country but of international education. There is virtually no place on a campus that they don’t touch.”

Ga-Yong Koh, a graduate student in accounting and president of the Korean Student Organization at Michigan State, said the university should provide more support for international students, such as scholarships and loans.

“It’s great if our tuition helps the university’s development,” said Koh. “For alumni, I think there’s nothing better than seeing their old school’s reputation improved. But as the number of international students rises along with tuition we pay, I’d like to see more prominent growth.”

Paavola at Northern emphasized the future influences students will bring to the international community after graduation.

“When they return to their home country, they’ll be able to use their education to do amazing things,” she said. “This is good for NMU because we then have exceptional alumni who will represent our university well to the world.”

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