Popular path to knowledge

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 June, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 June, 2003, 12:00am

The United States continues to be the world's most popular destination for studying abroad, and the numbers keep growing.

Despite setbacks following the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington DC, international enrolment at US colleges and universities registered a 6.4 per cent increase in the 2001-2002 academic year, the last year for which statistics are available, reaching a record high of 582,996, the Institute of International Education (IIE) reports.

International students account for 4 per cent of the enrolment at US institutions of higher learning, with students from Asia accounting for 56 per cent of that figure. With 63,211 students from China based in the United States, the mainland is the second most important source of students in the US, after India, which saw a leap of 22 per cent last year to assume first place. That year, there were also 28,930 students from Taiwan and 7,757 from Hong Kong studying at US tertiary institutions.

'International students continue to see the US as the study destination,' says IIE president Allan Goodman. 'Our campuses continue to welcome them in record numbers, knowing their presence in our classrooms strengthens our own understanding of global issues, and improves the chances for peace and development around the globe.'

What is the attraction of studying in the United States?

The US has by far the world's largest and most diverse post-secondary educational system. According to the US Network for Education Information, there are more than 190 separate educational systems in the world operating more than 12,000 institutions of higher learning, plus thousands more technical and other types of post-secondary institutions.

The United States alone, with about 5 per cent of the world's population, accounts for nearly one-third of the world's colleges and universities, with 4,000 degree-granting institutions of higher education, including everything from two-year community colleges, which accept all comers, to the exclusive Ivy League schools, such as Columbia, Princeton and Yale.

There are also numerous other technical and professional training bodies at post-secondary level. When it comes to furthering one's studies, students taking the American option are spoiled for choice.

US institutions can be divided into two broad categories: public and private.

Public institutions, such as the massive University of California system, with several campuses, are generally run by one of the 50 state governments. Private institutions are usually run by religious bodies or foundations, sometimes by businesses. Most, but not all, are operated on a not-for-profit basis. Scholarships are generally available for deserving students.

Some of the more prestigious institutions, such as Harvard, accept students purely on merit. Financial aid packages are devised so that all students who qualify can attend, regardless of their ability to pay.

With international enrolment up 30 per cent since 1993, one area of particular growth has been community colleges, which have experienced an increase of 61 per cent over the same period. International students account for one-fifth of community college enrolment.

Community colleges reflect one of the strengths of the US educational model, giving all students - even those not doing well in secondary school or on standardised tests - a second chance.

Generally speaking, community colleges offer two streams: two-year professional or vocational programmes, leading to an associate degree, or the first two years of a four-year degree. Students who successfully complete their first two years at a community college can usually transfer directly into Year Three of a four-year institution.

Katherine Fung-Surya, director, IIE - China/Hong Kong, says most students who complete Form Six in local secondary schools qualify to apply directly to a four-year tertiary institution in the United States. Ideally, however, they should start the application process nine months to one year in advance.

'Community colleges would be good for students wanting to leave as soon as possible since they are not as strict about application deadlines,' Ms Fung-Surya says.

'They usually have rolling deadlines, considering you any time you apply.'

Community colleges tend to be smaller than four-year institutions, with a lower student-teacher ratio, more support services, and a greater number of remedial courses for underachievers. They are also well suited for overseas students who are leaving home for the first time, especially those weak in English.

'For students whose English proficiency is not so good, they can be a stepping stone to a four-year college or university,' Ms Fung-Surya says.

'Most community colleges have an articulation agreement with four-year institutions. They will usually accept credits earned at community colleges, assuming the student's grades are acceptable.'

But if community colleges are easier to get into, they are anything but an easy ride. Standards can be as high as they are at four-year institutions, and many students quit after two years.

For those who do transfer to universities, however, success rates are every bit as high in their last two years as for those entering four-year institutions in their freshman year. An equal number, meanwhile, move on to graduate school.