EDMOND — When Joshua Lim was a freshman at the University of Central Oklahoma three years ago, he had to adapt to living in a new country while learning to navigate college life.
Lim is hardly alone. A study released this week shows the number of international college students is growing in Oklahoma and nationwide.
According to the study, the 2012 Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange, Oklahoma is welcoming an increasing number of students like Lim. During the 2011-12 academic year, 8,722 international students enrolled in Oklahoma colleges and universities. The study was conducted by the nonprofit Institute for International Education.
Oklahoma's figure represents an increase of 1.1 percent over last year's total of 8,626, according to the report. The state ranks 25th in the nation in terms of the number of international students it enrolls.
When he was in high school in Malaysia, Lim said, he dreamed of studying in the United States. He considered a few universities in New York and elsewhere. But when recruiters from UCO came to his school and told him about the university's relatively low tuition and the low cost of living in Oklahoma, he thought it sounded like a good fit.
Being able to meet with college recruiters in person and ask questions about the university helped ease his mind about the decision to enroll at UCO, Lim said.
“It was the personal touch,” he said.
Although Oklahoma's total of international students represents an increase over last year, it still falls short of the state's figures a decade ago. Oklahoma's colleges and universities enrolled 10,463 international students in the fall 2002 semester, according to numbers from the State Regents for Higher Education.
Between fall 1996 and fall 2011, the state averaged 8,945 international students whose origins were reported. That average doesn't include international students who don't report their country of origin.
The largest share of Oklahoma's international students — 19.2 percent — comes from China, according to the new report. India ranks second, with 11.8 percent. Saudi Arabia sends the third-largest group, with 8.4 percent of the state's international students.
Oklahoma State University welcomed the largest share of internationals, with 1,993. The University of Oklahoma enrolled 1,815 international students, and UCO enrolled 1,195.
Nationwide, colleges and universities saw record numbers of international students, according to the report. The number nationwide spiked 6 percent, bringing the total to a record high of 764,495 in the 2011-12 academic year.
That increase continues a trend of steady growth in international student enrollment nationwide. According to the institute, enrollment among internationals slowed and declined in the years after 9/11, dropping 2.4 percent in the 2003-04 academic year and about 1 percent the following year.
International enrollment nationwide began to rebound during the 2005-06 academic year, and has grown steadily since then, increasing 2 percent in 2009-10 and 5 percent last year.
A survey released last month by the online publication Inside Higher Ed suggests college officials nationwide are stepping up recruitment efforts for international students — particularly those who pay full price for their education.
College and university officials hope to see that trend continue. According to the 2012 Inside Higher Ed Survey of College and University Admissions Directors, 35 percent of public four-year university admissions officials and 39 percent of private four-year college admissions officials strongly agreed that they planned to increase recruitment of international students.
In the same survey, 31 percent of admissions officials strongly agreed that they were very likely to increase recruitment of students who pay full price for their education.
College and university officials generally place a high premium on increasing campus diversity, including among international students, as a way of exposing students to a range of backgrounds and perspectives. But international students also generally pay full out-of-state tuition, making them a financial asset to institutions.
International students also have fewer resources to help them pay for college than Americans. Universities typically don't offer financial aid to international students. Most foreign citizens also aren't eligible for federal financial aid programs, such as Pell Grants and the federal Work-Study Program, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
The department grants exceptions for some students, including permanent U.S. residents, refugees and anyone granted asylum in the United States.
George Qiao, a Chinese student at OSU, is enrolled in a cooperative program between OSU and his home institution, Sun Yat-sen University in the southeastern city of Guangzhou, China. He receives a merit-based scholarship for transfer students. That's the only financial aid he receives, he said.
Qiao, 21, said he chose to study in the United States knowing that he'd likely pay considerably more than other students at the university. Out-of-state students at OSU pay nearly four times as much in tuition per credit hour as students from Oklahoma.
“It's really up to us or our families,” he said.
At UCO, international students may apply for merit scholarships or work on campus to help pay for school, said Dennis Dunham, the university's executive director for international services. But when those students receive scholarships, they generally amount to $1,000 or less, he said, which doesn't go far to offset the roughly $20,000 they pay each year for tuition, books and room and board.
About 9 percent of UCO's students are international, Dunham said. That's a larger share than the national average, which stands at less than 4 percent. In many cases, Dunham said, students' families save money for their entire lives in the hopes of someday sending a son or daughter to an American university.
“Basically, our students are paying their way,” he said. “Sometimes, that is a way out for the whole family.”