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Number of foreign college students in Boston surges

Students Cassie Li (left) and Cassie Yu, both of China, enrolled at Northeastern University.Keith Bedford/Globe Staff

International students flooded into local colleges in record numbers last year, especially at Northeastern University and Boston University, according to a new nationwide study.

Boston ranks third among metro areas — after New York and Los Angeles — for its number of foreign students, with 47,895, up from 43,801 the previous year, the Institute of International Education said in its annual report released Monday.

The number of international students nationwide grew at the fastest rate in 35 years, increasing by 10 percent from the previous year to a record high of 974,926 during the 2014-15 academic year.

In Boston, the surge reflects the city’s growing clout as a mecca for students from abroad, including many from wealthy families, who seek the cachet of an American diploma and the experience of living in a diverse, dynamic region teeming with other students.


Srikar Reddy, from India, is a graduate student in engineering management at Northeastern University.Keith Bedford/Globe Staff

“It’s the kind of culture everybody can sink into,” said Srikar Reddy, 22, an Indian graduate student studying engineering management at Northeastern.

At the same time, some students said, it can be difficult to assimilate with American students and even sometimes with other foreign students.

“Our English is more academic, not so oral, so sometimes I don’t know how to learn the day-to-day English,” Cassie Yu, 25, a Chinese student in the College of Professional Studies, said Monday.

Administrators at Northeastern and BU said they have intentionally increased the number of foreign students as part of a strategy to prepare students to work in an increasingly global society.

“We wanted our students to feel comfortable exploring the world and they have to start by being comfortable on campus in a global environment,” Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun said in a phone interview.

Northeastern, which has 10,559 international students, making it sixth among colleges nationwide, encourages its students to complete co-op programs, which are similar to internships. Students do co-ops in 131 countries, including Antarctica, Aoun said.


Aoun rejected the idea that Northeastern pursues foreign students simply for the money. Most international students do not receive financial aid.

As such they contribute significantly to universities’ bottom lines because they pay full tuition and fees, which cost $45,530 at Northeastern, plus $14,472 for room and board.

Boston University ranks second in Massachusetts, and 11th nationally, with 7,860 foreign students. Kelly Walter, an associate vice president and executive director of admissions at BU, said the school set a goal five years ago of increasing the number of international students in each freshman class from 15 to 24 percent, which it achieved this year. BU has simultaneously shrunk the size of its freshman class, from 4,000 five years ago to 3,600, which helped increase the percentage, she said.

BU’s newest freshman class had 3,629 students, of whom 886 were international. The school has also increased the number of countries students come from to 74, up from 60 nations five years ago.

“It enriches the exchange in the classroom,” Walter said.

The greatest percentage of BU students still come from China. Applications to BU from that country increased 236 percent in the past five years, Walter said.

She attributes the increased diversity to a large admissions staff — nine people — who this fall visited 400 high schools in 82 cities in 50 countries, in addition to recruiting students in the United States.

The staff is now focusing on smaller cities in many countries to reach new students and putting more information on the BU website for foreign students, such as a virtual campus tour and a video about the student visa process, Walter said.


So far, she said, there are no plans to further increase the number of international students.

A third of international students in Massachusetts, where the total number grew to 55,447 from 51,240, are from China. India ranks second, with 11 percent of foreign students, followed by South Korea, Canada, and Saudi Arabia. All together, they contributed an estimated $2.2 billion to the state’s economy last year.

On Northeastern’s campus Monday, international students shared a variety of experiences about studying in Boston.

Joey Hsu of Taiwan, who attends Northeastern, said that he finds Boston “energetic, young, and friendly.”Keith Bedford/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Taiwanese graduate student Joey Hsu, 25, said he finds the city “energetic, young, and friendly” and has made friends. His Iranian friend has invited him to visit Tehran, he said.

“I don’t have to be perfect in English, as long as I can communicate, people accept me,” said Hsu, a graduate student studying global studies and international relations who was walking along Huntington Avenue Monday with a classmate.

Nearby, Saudi Arabian undergraduate Moataz Alsuhaimi, 21, said his brother first came to college in Boston and helped him adjust to a city with public transportation, colder weather, and different food.

“I like the fact that you don’t need a car,” said Alsuhaimi, who studies industrial engineering and hopes to work in Boston for several years after graduation.

Down the street, Reddy, the graduate student from India, had a different take on life as an international student.


He and his friend, Sriram Kapilavai, 23, who are both from Hyderabad, said they didn’t suffer culture shock because they grew up watching American movies and television.

But unlike undergraduates, who live in dormitories together, graduate students usually live off campus and have fewer chances to meet American students or those from other countries, they said.

“To be frank, there’s not that much interaction among international graduate students. Indians are among Indians, Chinese are among Chinese,” Reddy said.

The study also found the number of American students studying abroad increased at the highest rate since the 2008 economic downturn. In all, 304,467 students studied in foreign countries, including 14,762 from Massachusetts colleges.

Laura Krantz can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.