American college students are becoming more adventuresome as they study abroad, showing less interest in English-speaking destinations such as Great Britain and Australia and more in such alternatives as China, India, Argentina and Brazil.
Britain remained the most popular study destination last year, according to annual figures due for release today by the Institute of International Education, followed by Italy, Spain and France.
But the number of U.S. students studying in Britain and Australia declined slightly, even as the number of American students abroad rose 8 percent overall to 205,983 in 2005. The growth came in non-English-speaking European countries and in Asia, which still attracts lower numbers overall but is growing rapidly.
China is now the eighth most popular destination for American students, attracting nearly 6,400 last year, up 35 percent from the year before. Though still comparably small at around 2,000 students per year, Argentina and India saw increases of more than 50 percent.
"I'm sure my friends and family would say 'Why did you pick Africa, a poor country, why don't you go to Europe or somewhere more glamorous?"' said Xinh Pham, a Michigan State student who took part in a university-sponsored program to study nutrition in Tanzania last summer.
The trip was "a great way to dip my feet into Africa," and "it totally changed my views of the world," she said.
Allan Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education, said a range of factors contributed to the trend, from growing awareness of globalization after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to programs such as President Bush's National Security Language Initiative, which trains soldiers, intelligence officers and diplomats in foreign languages.
"What Americans are doing is waking up and discovering there's a world out there," he said.
Still, it is not clear that most students are getting genuine immersion experiences. More than half (56 percent) who study abroad do so only for summer terms or other programs lasting less than one semester. Pham's program lasted just a few weeks. Only 6 percent study abroad a full year.
"Time matters, but any experience is better than no experience in a country where 80 percent of our citizens don't have a passport," Goodman said.
Other figures to be released today tracked the flow of students in the opposite direction - from foreign countries into U.S. universities.
The institute found that international enrollment in U.S. higher education remained steady last year at about 565,000, after two straight years of declines, but that new enrollments were up about 8 percent from 2004-05. That suggests that the slowdown that occurred after the Sept. 11 attacks may have ended and that the overall figure will begin to grow again.
Full data for this fall isn't yet available, but a separate survey by a consortium of higher education groups finds 45 percent of institutions reporting increases in international enrollment and only 26 percent recording declines. The rest stayed about steady.
The figures are of keen interest to universities, which depend on foreign students for teaching and research help, and to policymakers, who consider it essential that future foreign leaders be familiar with the United States.
Both groups had been alarmed by slackening interest among international students in studying in the United States - a trend blamed on anti-Americanism, difficulties getting visas after the attacks and growing competition from universities abroad.
Last year saw significant increases in students from South Korea, Taiwan and Mexico. India sent the most students, 76,503, while China was No. 2 with 62,582.