At the beginning of the academic year, Red Square on the University of Washington campus resembles a kind of international bazaar of student clubs.
Hailing from China, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, India, Taiwan, Brazil — students studying at the UW from across the globe set up tables and banners, hoping to bring both students from their own countries and American students together for social events.
Data released Monday by the Institute of International Education (IIE) underscores how appealing Washington state has become: The number of international students studying here grew 11 percent from 2011-12 to 2012-13, and 55 percent over four years.
In all, about 25,500 international students studied in Washington in the 2012-13 academic year, and made up 7 percent of the state’s college population.
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Only three other states (Massachusetts, New York, Delaware) and the District of Columbia drew a higher percentage of their college population from overseas.
When it comes to students from Washington colleges studying abroad, however, the trend is just the opposite, with a decline over the past four years. Of the 127,000 students enrolled in four-year public and private universities in Washington, only about 6,200 students studied abroad in 2012-13.
For international students, Washington — with its thriving, tech-driven economy; its location on the Pacific Rim; and its deep connections to Asia — has long been an appealing place to study. And state institutions have embraced the growth in international education, often sending recruiters overseas to encourage students to study here.
In recent years, as state financing for higher education has withered away, Washington’s universities and community colleges have also come to see international students as a way to shore up their budgets.
Because they pay as much as three times the tuition that Washington students pay, international students help subsidize local students’ educations.
“A lot of people say they’re crowding out local students, but most often this isn’t the case,” said Peggy Blumenthal, senior counselor to the IIE’s president, Allan Goodman. Rather, “universities are using international enrollments to keep their budgets whole.”
International students also spend generously in the local economy: According to the IIE report, foreign students studying in Washington spent about $737 million last year for food, clothing, entertainment, housing, tuition and other expenses.
When it comes to Washington students studying abroad, however, money may stand in the way. As tuition rises, studying abroad can be a challenge — not only because it can be more expensive, but also because students who work during the school year have to forgo that income when they study abroad, said Jeffrey Riedinger, vice provost of global affairs for the UW. About 20 percent of UW students study abroad at some point in their undergraduate careers.
IIE is eager to see more U.S. students go overseas for part of their education because “it’s really been proven to build their self-confidence, to build their sense of being independent, to take on challenges they didn’t know they could take on,” Blumenthal said.
She said studies show students who study abroad are more likely to graduate on time, and in terms of their careers, “there’s just no question kids today are going to be graduating into a global marketplace,” she said. Students who study abroad “learn how to navigate in a totally different climate.”
The UW sent about 2,000 students abroad in 2012-13. Some of the other large study-abroad programs are in Washington’s liberal-arts colleges, including Seattle University and Gonzaga University in Spokane, Blumenthal said.
Among all 50 states and the District of Columbia, Washington ranks 11th for the raw number of international students studying here. That rank has not changed in several years because the overall number of international students studying in the U.S. has grown so much nationwide — by 72 percent since 2000.
One-third of the students who came here to study in 2012-13 were from China. Other countries that sent large numbers of students include South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam.
Among metropolitan areas, the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue area ranked ninth in the nation for the number of international students studying here (19,391). And it was tied with the New York metropolitan area for the biggest growth in one year — 12.7 percent.
By far the largest number are studying at the UW, where nearly 7,500 students came for their education. Washington State University came in second, with nearly 2,400 foreign students.
The three next most-popular campuses for international students are all community colleges: Seattle Central College (which dropped the “community” from its name earlier this year) with 1,952 students; Green River Community College in Auburn with 1,619, and Edmonds Community College with 1,393.