WASHINGTON - The number of foreigners enrolled at US universities shot to a record high in the last academic year fueled by an influx of Chinese students, an educators' group said Monday.
India remained the top source of foreign students in the United States but their numbers appeared to be leveling off, with strong new growth coming from China as well as Vietnam and several other emerging economies.
The number of foreign students increased eight percent to a record 671,616 in 2008-2009 from the previous academic year, the sharpest growth since 1980-81 and more than any other country, said the annual report by the Institute of International Education.
With foreign students generating close to 18 billion dollars a year, officials and educators said higher education was proving to be a strong engine to bolster the troubled US economy.
Judith McHale, the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, said US universities were also a crucial element in improving the US image around the world by offering foreigners a first-hand look at the United States.
"One of the things that has struck me is that everywhere I've gone -- even countries where we have a very difficult situation in terms of perception of the United States, throughout the Middle East, in Pakistan and elsewhere -- you find continued interest in people coming to the United States to study," she told an event releasing the research.
Saudi Arabia was among the countries that sent far more students to the United States last year, with the number jumping 28 percent from a year earlier to 12,661.
But China was the key driver of growth, with the number of Chinese students heading to the United States increasing 21 percent to 98,510.
The study found a number of reasons for the surge including a concerted effort by US universities to promote themselves in China and the rising Asian power's burgeoning middle class.
"Even though we know there has been a financial crisis, the Asian economies have not been as badly hit as the US," said Rajika Bhandari, who directed the research for the Institute of International Education.
"Chinese families tend to be smaller and put aside great resources to invest in their children's education," she said.
The study was released as US President Barack Obama visited China, where he held a public forum with university students in Shanghai.
The United States also enjoyed dramatic growth in the number of Vietnamese students, with the figure soaring by 46 percent last year.
The only country that saw a significant decline was Japan. The number of Japanese studying in the United States slipped nearly 14 percent, a trend the study pinned on Japan's shaky economy and shrinking population.
The United States remained by far the biggest single destination for students studying outside their own country, but the gap has narrowed in recent years with Britain, its biggest competitor.
The United States in 2008 pulled in 21 percent of the world's estimated three million foreign students, compared with 13 percent for Britain. France came in third at nine percent, followed closely by Germany.
But in a sign there is room for growth, foreigners made up only 3.5 percent of the overall student body in the United States, compared with 16.3 in Britain and 22.5 percent in Australia.
Bhandari, the researcher, said the United States has largely addressed concerns about slow issuance of student visas in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, although some applicants still had negative perceptions about the visa process.
She said British universities were now facing troubles over student visas after London reformed its immigration system.