Surge in Overseas Applicants Driven by Weak Dollar

The faltering U.S. dollar, which has steadily lost value against major currencies around the world, has produced a silver lining for foreign students and the American universities that recruit them.

With every dip in the exchange rate, the cost of college for many foreign students has dropped in kind, a discount that has contributed to a surge in demand for Boston-area colleges and universities, college administrators, consultants, and higher education specialists say.

“Everyone wants an American education, but for many families the cost has been prohibitive,” said Marguerite Dennis, vice president for enrollment and international programs at Suffolk University, which attributes a sharp rise in international enrollment this fall to the exchange rate. “But now, the dollar has made coming here so much more attractive and realistic.”

Widely considered the worldwide gold standard for higher education, American universities have suddenly emerged as a bargain for a growing number of international students, whose yen, rupees, and pounds go much further than they used to. The influx is expected to reverse the declines in foreign student enrollment that followed the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

“We know as a general proposition that worldwide economic trends impact student flows,” said Victor Johnson, senior adviser for public policy for NAFSA: Association of International Educators. “If people are coming here for a couple of days to do nothing but buy a new wardrobe, it would be strange if the exchange rate didn’t affect their educational decisions.”

Many colleges in Massachusetts and across the country report sharp increases in applications and acceptances from international students for the coming school year, especially from India, China, and European countries.

The University of Massachusetts at Amherst expects a roughly 20 percent increase in new international students this fall, while Northeastern University will enroll 17 percent more students than last year’s class. Foreign students will comprise nearly one-quarter of Babson College’s incoming class, after a 67 percent rise in their ranks.

“We’ve stepped up recruiting, and the dollar has certainly played a role,” said Grant Gosselin, Babson’s dean of undergraduate admission. “As the dollar decreases in value, American colleges become that much more attractive.”

As the throngs of foreign tourists who flock to Harvard Yard and other local campuses attest, the Boston area has long been a beacon for international students. With nearly 24,000 foreign students, Boston is the country’s third-leading host city, trailing New York and Los Angeles. Higher-education institutions such as Harvard University, Boston University, Boston College, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Northeastern are known around the world.

The surge in foreign student enrollment could have a considerable positive economic effect on the region, education specialists said.

“Students see the exchange rate as favorable for them, but it’s also very favorable for us,” said Richard Doherty, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts. “Higher education is a major export commodity that really distinguishes us from the other states.”

Last year, the nearly 29,000 foreign students in Massachusetts contributed almost $1 billion to the state’s economy, according to a new study by the association.

Nationally, this fall’s influx continues a rebound in international enrollment to previous heights, according to the latest figures from the Institute of International Education. The nearly 583,000 foreign students who attended U.S. colleges last year were the most since 2002, when tighter restrictions on student visas and growing anti-American sentiment abroad caused enrollments to decline.

India set the pace, the sixth consecutive year it has sent the most students to the United States, followed by China and Korea.

Some college officials are skeptical that favorable exchange rates are the main reason for the increase. Officials at Harvard, Amherst College, and MIT report increases in international enrollment, but say their financial aid packages make money less of a concern. Since most colleges offer limited scholarships to foreigners, international students tend to be well off to begin with, others say.

Colleges also point to enhanced recruitment strategies abroad and increased global awareness of American universities, particularly in China and India.

But most admissions officers say they are convinced that the exchange rate has fundamentally altered the financial equation for many middle-class families abroad.

“When you see an unusual increase, you start to wonder, ‘What’s changed dramatically?”’ asked Kristen Haack, director of graduate admission for the College of Arts and Sciences at Simmons College. “What’s changed dramatically is the exchange rate. I haven’t heard the usual anxiety from international students, the ‘Oh my gosh, how am I going to pay for this?’”

At Dean College in Franklin, scores of international students have spent the past few months taking English classes, drawn by the opportunity to learn English in a surprisingly inexpensive locale.

“It wasn’t the only reason, but it was pretty important,” Martin Prochazka, an 18-year-old from the Czech Republic, said of his decision to study in the United States. “I checked into London, but it was twice the price.”

Another student at Dean, Livia Bibian, a 23-year-old from Brazil, said the increase of that country’s currency - the real - against the dollar in recent years has made her five-month stay here a relative bargain.

Not only were classes far more affordable, she estimates she saved $1,500 in buying a laptop and digital camera, and that’s not even counting the clothes.

“$799 for a HP laptop, with a nice, big screen,” she said with a satisfied nod. “Amazing.”

Peggy Blumenthal of the Institute of International Education said some national governments, such as Saudi Arabia and Chile, have taken advantage of the low exchange rates to expand international scholarship programs.

Friday, one euro bought about $1.57, while the pound bought almost $2. The Australian and Canadian dollars had reached near-parity.

“Ten years ago, we had to provide scholarship assistance to offset the difference between the Canadian dollar and ours,” said Peter Miller, vice president for admission services at American International College in Springfield. “Now it’s more economical for them to come here.”

Adam Goldberg, an education consultant in Braintree, said families with college-bound students from Toronto and Montreal are “giddy over the exchange rate imbalance.”

Some colleges say they would like to expand recruitment to capitalize on the currency situation.

But because exchange rates are a zero-sum game, there’s a catch.

“Unfortunately, it will make my [international] trips that much more expensive,” said Stuart Schmill ’86, MIT’s admissions dean.