A perfect storm of demographics and economics has caused both Japan and the United States to aggressively woo students from abroad to enroll in their respective universities. Based on the evidence to date, it’s hard to know which country will ultimately be successful in achieving its objective.

Japanese students who opt to earn a degree even from a marquee-name university abroad find themselves at a distinct disadvantage when they return home to enter the job market. By that time, their peers from lesser universities have already contacted dozens of companies and have received support from local alumni networks.

The cachet of a degree is simply no match for shukatsu, the hiring of workers directly upon graduation from college and employing them until retirement. Despite changes in Japanese society, it remains a powerful tradition.

But Japanese students also run the risk of unconsciously adopting an attitude when studying abroad that turns off Japanese employers. Being assertive and asking too many questions can be fatal in a job interview. That’s why graduates try hard to hide their Western ways.

The change is seen in the data. At one time, Japanese students constituted a much larger proportion of university enrollment in the U.S. But their presence has decreased by 1.2 percent to about 19,000 at last count, according to numbers from the Institute of International Education.

At Harvard University, the total number of Japanese students has been declining for 15 years, while the number enrolled from China, South Korea and India has more than doubled.

Nevertheless, the low birthrate in Japan has left university openings that need to be filled to balance the books. Foreign students have the potential to make up the difference.

Sensing a unique opportunity created by these factors and a shrinking population, ST Booking has developed a one-stop website offering information to foreign students seeking to study in Japan.

Before its arrival on the scene, students had to try to cobble together from various sources on their own answers to their questions about classes in English, scholarships, housing and part-time employment.

Universities in the U.S. have a similar problem, albeit for somewhat different reasons. Public universities in particular are cash-strapped as a result of reductions in governmental support. Because foreign students pay a premium in tuition compared with in-state students, the former are highly coveted. A few have been hiring foreign consultants who act as recruiting agents.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, there are now about 1.3 million foreign students in the U.S. — the overwhelming majority in college-degree programs. That’s a 14 percent increase over the year before, and 85 percent more than in 2005. Although China accounts for the largest share, India and South Korea are not far behind.

The rising number of foreign students admitted to state universities has triggered resentment because they are seen as displacing state residents. Caving in to pressure, the University of California finally placed a 22 percent cap on the percentage of foreign and out-of-state undergraduate students accepted to its Berkeley and Los Angeles campuses. In a similar move, the University of Iowa now links state funding of public universities to the number of in-state students enrolled.

Although university officials in the U.S. attempt to justify the admission of growing numbers of foreign students as necessary for diversity, it’s more likely that they are swayed by financial considerations. The University of Colorado at Boulder is a case in point. International undergraduates pay $35,231 annually in tuition and fees. That compares with $10,971 for Colorado residents and $33,333 for out-of-state U.S. students.

Asian students have felt the brunt of the backlash.

Although they make up only 15 percent of California’s population, they account for about one-third of the students at the University of California campuses. Their numbers would be even higher if the present holistic approach to admissions were abolished and traditional academic merit alone took its place.

Universities in both Japan and the U.S. will come under increasing pressure in the years ahead to balance competing academic and financial demands. Whether they can keep both balls in the air simultaneously will require rare expertise.

Walt Gardner writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week in the U.S.

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