Ten years ago, Richard Phelps says, many of The Association of Boarding Schools' nearly 300 members had no international students.
Today, only three don't, and that's because an international roster wouldn't mesh well with their choral and local philanthropic missions. The remainder don't have just a handful of enrollees from outside America; in many cases, they represent a significant percentage of the student body — which, based on the growing international appetite for American education, could easily be larger.
"If the boarding schools were willing to take more international students, they could," said Phelps, director of research at TABS. "What keeps a lid on it is the interest in diversity in the student populations."
Conversely, Phelps said, aiding the expansion is the fact that most international students pay full tuition. At a time when the American high school student population is about to emerge from a demographic trough and when some boarding schools are under considerable pressure, that matters.
But, particularly for schools that have never worked with international students, there's a lot to learn along the way, including teaching English as a second language and working with visas.
Carson Long Military Institute in Perry County has about 100 students, of whom about 30 are international students from about a dozen countries. Michael Pray, its director of admissions, said one line of thinking says 30 percent international should be the general limit.
"Students look at us primarily for total English language immersion," Pray said. "If a school tends to skew heavily international, the English language immersion piece tends to go away."
But, Pray said, he's not sure the 30 percent guideline should always apply. The composition of the international mix matters, he said. Not allowing any one nationality to dominate the pool makes it harder for students to revert to their native languages. It also enhances the global community emphasis that schools with international students prize.
"Our mission statement talks about developing young men who are responsible citizens and ethical leaders in a global community," Pray said. "We bring the global community here."
"Given the global village that we live in, I think the best education that we can give anyone is one that understands the local and the global perspectives," said J. Richard Thomas, superintendent of Lancaster Mennonite School. That's particularly applicable for students planning to go into business, he said.
China is currently the source of the biggest demand, Pray said, for reasons including the vast size of the nation and its student populace; its robust economy; its culture that values education; and its educational system that has a highly competitive college track and puts everyone else on the vocational track.
But although China represents Carson Long's largest non-American enrollment, it's only seven students.
Thomas also stressed the importance of maintaining diversity. Like Carson Long, LMS has welcomed international students for many years but has had more lately as demand is rising. This year, he said, the high school's total enrollment is about 650 students, with 106 international students from 17 countries.
Asia does represent the largest market for LMS — tellingly, the school has a Chinese version of its website. But while China is home to the school's largest foreign contingent, Thomas said, a few years ago the leader was Korea, which is currently in second place. And third place goes to Ethiopia.
"Given the world we live in, it's hard to do real accurate, long-term projections," Thomas said. Historically, national changes ranging from government to economy to culture can affect international student enrollment, he said, and that means having students from a number of different countries helps insulate LMS from large economic effects if demand from any one of those countries suddenly drops.
LMS is primarily a day school but has always had a residence hall, Thomas said. Initially it was for students who lived locally but too far away for a daily commute.
The range gradually widened to Philadelphia and New York City, then overseas. Now most of the 47 students in the residence hall are international, with the rest of the non-American students living with local families. LMS is currently fundraising for a $1.8 million replacement residence hall that will, Thomas said, feature bright color schemes in response to international student feedback that standard American decor is boring.
Linden Hall, an all-girls school in Lancaster County, also has a mixed model. Of its 250 students in grades five to 12, about 20 percent come for the day and the rest are boarding students. Comment from the school was not available for this article, but according to its website, it has international students hailing from 16 nations and has an affiliate in China that interviews applicants who cannot visit campus.
Carson Long, by contrast, was founded in 1836 and is the oldest boarding school in the U.S. to offer military training. It just began offering a day program. There are two day students this year — a great success given the program's limited publicity, Pray said — and the school hopes to eventually grow that to 20 or 30 students.
This year's total enrollment is well below the school's maximum capacity of about 180 students.
Pray said he has heard of day schools considering adding boarding programs just for the purpose of attracting and accommodating international students.
"I was shocked," Pray said. "To put the money forward to build housing is very expensive. The long-term plan has to be pretty sustainable."
High school students aren’t the only people who want to learn in the United States.
Since 1998, the six-month-long Chinese Executive Training Program at Millersville University has had about 120 participants — middle-level executive managers who represent a broad spectrum of Chinese governmental units.
Program director Enyang Guo, who is professor of finance at Millersville University, said the program came about at the request of the Chinese government and is not happening this year because of some changes in the Chinese government office.
“It could be resumed in the future, but I am not sure at this point,” Guo said. The program, she said, brought diversification to MU’s campus culture and enhanced the connections between the university and the regional business communities.
MU also took part in a 20-member delegation of business and industry leaders from Lancaster County who visited World Expo 2010 in Shanghai.
Franklin & Marshall College reports that international students are nearly 17 percent of its incoming class and about 13 percent of its student body. According to spokeswoman Julia Ferrante, the college has been building relationships with high schools in Asia for more than two decades and offers need-based financial aid to international students, which few other colleges do.