The increase in international students attending Connecticut institutes of higher education doubled the national average — reaching record levels — handing the state's industry and workforce a distinct advantage in the world economy.
"For these Connecticut students to have international peers and international classmates and roommates really helps them because when they graduate, they are entering a global marketplace," said Peggy Blumenthal, senior counselor to the president at Washington, D.C.-based Institute of International Education. "It will help them be better global professionals."
In 2011, Connecticut had 10,137 international students studying at its colleges and universities, according to IIE. The top locales in descending order are the University of Bridgeport (2,582 international students), Yale University (2,254), University of Connecticut (2,192), University of New Haven (773), and University of Hartford (411).
Connecticut ranks No. 21 in the nation in total number of international students, according to IIE, and the state is moving up in the world. This year's international attendance increased 9.4 percent from 2010, while the entire nation managed a 5 percent increase.
"It is about having the diverse population, and having our students learn about other cultures," said Dave Isgur, University of Hartford spokesman. "It is a good preparation for them going out in the workforce."
The other, direct benefit to the Connecticut economy from the international students is the money they spend within the state on tuition, travel and living expenses. IIE estimates the direct economic impact in 2011 at $299.9 million.
"That is real jobs created for Connecticut families," Blumental said.
IIE first started tracking the Connecticut numbers in 1999. Connecticut had strong international student growth the first three years, peaking in 2001 with 8,050.
However, the numbers dropped 18 percent following the concerns of the international community in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. The number of international students did not recover to its pre-9/11 levels until the 2008-2009 school year, when foreign matriculation hit 9,268 in Connecticut.
The high number of international students studying in Connecticut won't necessarily translate into a more geographically-diverse workforce in the state, as student visas aren't easily made into work visas, Blumenthal said.
However, all the international students are eligible for operational practical training, where they may work for an in-state company for up to one year in the field of their choosing. For science and technology students, their visas allow 29 months of operational practical training.
"It gives the companies they work for a chance to really get to know the country from which the student comes," Blumenthal said.
Operational practical training can result in jobs for the international students, Blumenthal said. Sometimes, they achieve work visas to stay on with the company; other times, they remain in contact or employment with the Connecticut company when they return to their native lands.
The leading nation of origin for Connecticut's 2011 international students is India, comprising 25.4 percent of all those studying here from aboard. After India comes China (21.9 percent), South Korea (4.6 percent), Canada (4.1 percent) and Saudi Arabia (3 percent).
Connecticut and the entire East Coast are popular destinations for international students because it is near cities they already know, Blumenthal said. Connecticut's evergreen geographic advantage between Boston and New York makes the difference here.
Connecticut also is a step above some other East Coast states because of the quality of the institutions.
"Ultimately, when an international student is choosing, it really comes down to the quality of the institutions," Blumenthal said.
The University of Hartford policy calls for 10 percent of its student population to be international students. The university has taught people from places such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, where Americans have a growing interest.
"We've always recognized the value of having a strong international presence at the university," Isgur said.
Connecticut's large international student population is especially important because the door doesn't swing as frequently the other way. The ratio of Connecticut international students against Connecticut native students studying aboard is nearly 3:1, as 3,889 Connecticut natives studied aboard in the last school year.
"Not that many Connecticut students are able to study abroad, so international students are their best experience with other cultures," Blumenthal said. "They end up meeting a lot of people in Connecticut, and they end up staying in touch."