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U.S. Degree Back in Demand, as Dollar Weakens Further

When 19-year-old Lim Runting mulled university options three years ago, a pricey U.S. education was not on her radar screen. The dollar’s tumble, however, has put an American degree within reach for the Singaporean.

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Earlier this year, Lim’s mother sat down to do the sums. The elder Lim reckons she’ll save at least S$24,000 ($18,500) per year on tuition and living costs per year, thanks to today’s currency exchange rate, compared to what she would have paid three years ago. It was a bargain too good to pass. Lim will start classes in January at UCLA’s school of theatre, film and television.

“This is quite a major decision for us,” says Lim, 19, who is the first of her family to study abroad. “My family and I really considered whether I should go or not. The main reason we decided to go for it was the currency.”

The weak U.S. dollar is about to give a major boost to one of America’s biggest service sector exports: higher education. International students contributed $15.5 billion to U.S. economy in the 2007/2008 academic year through expenditures on fees, books, transportation, room and board and other living expenses, according to the Institute of International Education, a not-for-profit educational and cultural exchange organization based in the United States.

It’s a sector still in recovery mode. Asian student enrollment in American tertiary education institutions plummeted at the onset of the Asian financial crisis in 1997; and took another hit following the September 11th terrorist attacks in 2001, which saw international student admission slump for the next four years.

"This is very exciting for me. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to study abroad, never mind in the U.S.,”" -on the opportunity to enroll in a university in the U.S., Lim Runting

While the overall number of college or graduate international students in the U.S. has recovered since, enrolment from Asian countries has been mixed.

Thanks to the Asian strong economic recovery, U.S. tertiary institutions are seeing more students from India, China and South Korea, according to Open Doors, an annual study put together by the not-for-profit international education outfit IIE.

Japan, on the other hand, which had the biggest overseas student enrollment in the U.S. from 1994 to 1998, has seen a steady decline since, according to the report. Hong Kong and Malaysia also send fewer students now than before the Asian financial crisis. Experts cite cost and the rise of rival countries like Australia, which have aggressively courted Asian students over the last decade.

But a weaker greenback could give an American degree a fresh competitive edge.

Australia’s proximity to Asia, and a historically lower cost, has helped build its reputation as a destination of choice among Asian students. But the Aussie dollar’s near parity with the U.S. dollar is changing the cost equation.

2009 Open Doors report on origin of international tertiary students to the U.S.
Source: Institute of International Education
2009 Open Doors report on origin of international tertiary students to the U.S.

The opportunity isn’t lost on U.S. colleges, which have spent the last few years working hard to woo Asian students. UCLA, for example, made a strategic decision to boost Asian undergraduate enrolments by marketing to top Asian secondary schools and exploring possible tie-ups with Asian universities.

“We currently have a large delegation from UCLA traveling through China, Japan, Korea, and Singapore who are discussing university linkages with leading universities as well as meeting with prospective students,” says Bob Ericksen, at UCLA.

International undergraduate enrollments have jumped more than 20% this fall quarter, he says. “We anticipate this growth trend will continue for a number of years into the future.”

Experts say a U.S. degree, which has an outsized global brand image, will continue to draw attention from this region, especially if cost is on its side.

The Lims, for one, will be accompanying their daughter on a recce trip to the U.S. in November to familiarize themselves with UCLA’s campus.

“This is very exciting for me. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to study abroad, never mind in the U.S.,” says Ms. Lim, who one day hopes to become a filmmaker. “This is a great opportunity.”