More than 13,000 international students came to the Seattle metro area for a college education between 2008 and 2012, part of a dramatically accelerating wave of foreign students entering the country in the last decade for degrees in business, science, technology, engineering and math.
Their presence here made Seattle the 16th most popular destination in the U.S. for foreign students.
The analysis, from the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, calculates that students studying in the Seattle-Bellevue-Tacoma metropolitan area paid $292 million in tuition between 2008 and 2012, and pumped an additional $179 million into the local economy for living expenses.
Nationwide, the number of foreign students who came to the U.S. for college degrees grew fivefold in a little more than a decade — from 110,000 in 2001 to 524,000 in 2012.
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The presence of so many international students hasn’t always been welcome news in Seattle — some critics say they’re taking college slots away from Washington state residents.
But Brookings associate fellow Neil Ruiz, who wrote the report, notes that international students help subsidize state colleges and universities because they pay much higher tuition costs — at some schools, nearly three times the amount that in-state students pay.
“With their tuition dollars, they’re helping save our universities from closing down,” he said, referring to the steep budget cuts most public universities have faced in recent years.
They can also play another important economic role, one that’s not always particularly appreciated in the host communities: They can serve “as bridges back to their growing home cities,” and may offer valuable skills to local employers, Ruiz said.
But many metropolitan areas “have not yet realized this untapped resource in their communities,” he said.
For example, students getting their master’s degree in business administration often have business experience in their home communities before they get here. And they may become important leaders in their own economies when they return home, he said. So networking with international students can pay off for aspiring business leaders here.
Maud Daudon, president and CEO of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, agreed.
“You think about your own college experience — your network of connections, friends and professors — it’s a long-lasting network, and I think we underutilize it with the idea of business-to-business relationships,” said Daudon, who is also a member of the Washington Student Achievement Council, a state agency that is creating a long-range plan to boost educational achievement.
Perhaps surprisingly, in Seattle, the vast majority of international students — about 72 percent — were not studying for STEM degrees — science, technology, engineering or math. In Seattle, Ruiz said, business was the most popular major.
Daudon said she wasn’t surprised by the number. Spots in STEM majors have grown slowly, despite the demand, because it is more expensive to educate an engineer than a liberal-arts major.
According to the report, the international city that sent the largest number of students — 1,074 — to Seattle was Seoul, South Korea, but the country that sent the most students here was China, which was the country of origin for 3,684 students.
Students who get a visa to study in this country have an option to remain here and work for a year, or for up to 29 months if they major in a STEM degree. Of those students who chose to stay and work, 74 percent remained in the Seattle metro area, Ruiz found. That’s a sign students were able to find short-term jobs here after they graduated.
The most popular Seattle-area schools for international students were the University of Washington and its branch campus in Bothell; Seattle University; Pacific Lutheran University; and City University of Seattle.
Ruiz said he was also surprised to see that many of Seattle’s international students come here for associate degrees at community colleges. In that regard, Seattle is something of an outlier.
Washington community colleges have vigorously promoted themselves as an option for foreign students, marketing themselves on the idea that community college is less expensive and a steppingstone to a four-year college. That’s not common elsewhere in the nation, Ruiz said.
Nationwide, the hottest destination for foreign students was the New York metro area, which ranked first and attracted more than 100,000 students during the period of the study. Los Angeles came in second, attracting 68,000 students.
One other city in Washington made it onto the Brookings list: Spokane, where about 2,600 students from foreign countries came to study. The top two origin cities for Spokane were in Saudi Arabia — Riyadh and Jeddah. The top origin country was Japan.