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When it comes to students across the world, a new study shows there's more than a moderate interest in studying abroad. The Institute of International Education says study-abroad programs are more popular than ever. And the nation's capital draws its fair share of foreign students.
A record number of foreign college students -- more than 723,000 -- came to the U.S. to study last year. And more than 36,000 of them opted to study in the District, Maryland and Virginia, pumping millions of dollars into our local economy.
Foreign students brought in approximately $400 million to both Maryland and Virginia, and $300 million to the District. The University of Maryland-College Park, George Washington University and Johns Hopkins University are the local universities with the most international students.
"International education is a major growth industry for the United States," says Ann Stock, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. "Even in tough economic times last year, foreign students brought 21.3 billion dollars to local economies nationwide."
More U.S. students are studying abroad... but not enough
The number of American students who spend semesters overseas is on the rise as well. During the 2009-10 academic year, 270,000 U.S. college students participated in study-abroad programs, with an increasing number of them choosing non-English speaking and non-Western European countries. According to the study, the top choice is still the U.K., but now 14 of the top 25 countries are outside Europe, and in 19 of them, English is not the main language. Students are choosing to go to countries such as China, Brazil, India and New Zealand. While the number of American students studying abroad has gone up, Assistant Secretary Stock says the numbers must increase even more.
"The United States can and must do better in today's global economy," she says. "Right now, there are 21 million college students in the U.S. But less than two percent take advantage of the opportunity to study abroad."
Patricia Chow, a researcher at the Institute of International Education, says this is the first year minority students comprised more than 20 percent of study abroad participants. But she says those numbers also need to increase.
"While this is landmark, it shows we still have a ways to go before Americans study abroad fully represents the diversity of U.S. higher education," says Chow. "Over one-third of U.S. students in higher education are racial and ethnic minorities, and that is a gap between the one-fifth who are studying abroad."
2012 election expected to attract both American and foreign students
Experts believe the number of U.S. students studying abroad will continue to increase each year. Rob Hallsworth, who heads the study abroad program at George Washington University, says many factors go in to where and whether a student decides to study abroad.
"Every four years with the election cycle we see a decrease too," says Hallsworth. "Everybody wanted to be on campus when the Obama election happened. We have a very politically engaged student body. We're expecting a slight downturn in 2012."
Next year's presidential race will likely curtail American students from studying overseas, so they can have a front-row seat for the election. And presumably, that election will also be a draw for students from other countries, who want to witness the way politics are played in Washington.
[Music: "Around the World (Radio Edit)" by Daft Punk from Around the World]