Two-Year Colleges Go Courtin' Overseas

U.S. community colleges are reaching outway outand students from around the world are rolling in

Marketing an obscure Wyoming community college to Vietnamese high schoolers presents special challenges. Many have never heard of Wyoming, and, if they have, it's usually thanks to the movie Brokeback Mountain. So when recruiter Harriet Bloom-Wilson from Northwest College in Powell, Wyo., visits the International High School in Ho Chi Minh City, she focuses on the college's nurturing, small-town environment. That's what sold "Grace" Thienan Nguyen, 19. The business major also notes she can transfer to a full-fledged university.

An American Ivy League education has long been prized by wealthy families in Asia, the Middle East, and elsewhere. Now more and more middle-class kids, whose English-language skills won't pass muster at universities, are discovering two-year programs. Keen to attract these kids and stand out in a crowded field, schools are ramping up their global marketing efforts.

It's no secret why Nguyen and her peers are descending on community colleges. Besides being easier to get into than universities, they also cost far less. "The notion of smart shopping for international education has really begun to spread," says Peggy Blumenthal, executive vice-president of the Institute of International Education.

Still, foreign students pay anywhere from 2 to 10 times more per credit than locals because they are from out of state. That's big money for cash-strapped community colleges at a time when many states are cutting funding. With about 900 foreign kids on campus, Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, Calif., along with the district's two other campuses, generated an extra $6million in revenue last year. Beyond the income boost, schools say foreign students bring a multicultural perspective to campus. Local students gain international exposure at a time of deepening globalization. As you'd expect, most students come from Asia, but more and more hail from Eastern Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East.

It all adds up to community colleges falling all over themselves to attract attention overseas. They're hosting fairs in cities as varied as Istanbul, Mexico City, and Seoul, collaborating with foreign high schools and buying ads in local papers. Some are tapping a cottage industry of local agents that has sprung up in places like Vietnam. And colleges are creating positions for international recruiters and sending them overseas. Tammy Schofield, hired a few months ago by the College of Lake County in Grayslake, Ill., gathered 2,500 names during tours through Asia and the West Indies. "A lot of people in the U.S. still don't know a lot about community colleges," Schofield says. "I was amazed that [foreign] students knew about the community college model."

The most popular colleges tend to feed big universities. Case in point: Diablo Valley College, where foreigners make up 5% of the student population (vs. 1% a decade ago) thanks largely to the institution's proximity to the University of California's Berkeley campus. Gloria Zarabozo, head of global admissions, says though only about 30 international students transfer each year to Berkeley, it's a big selling point.

The more remote the school, the more inventive the marketing: 70 miles of sandy beaches at Brevard Community College in Cocoa, Fla.; on-campus dorms and 17-person classes at Crowder College in Neosho, Mo.; a host family program and airport pick-up at Pierce College in Lakewood, Wash. Anything, in short, to stand out amid increasing competition not just at home but from rival schools in Australia and Canada. "We're not the only game in town," says Northwest College recruiter Bloom-Wilson. "All of a sudden we are realizing we have to fight for these students."

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