To be fair to Santa Monica College, the sunset photo of the pony-tailed jogger framed by palm trees against an ocean backdrop is not the only way its brochure recruits foreign students.
The pamphlet also boasts that the school sends more graduates to the University of California than any other community college. And it touts the tuition--$151 per unit--as a bargain.
Still, the cover image of "sun and sea and the beach" was what caught the eye of Ute Braun, who came from Germany to enroll. "I always imagined this as 'Baywatch,' " she said.
The power of that image--spread around the world by the popular TV show--is not lost on recruiters for Santa Monica and other California community colleges. They have made it a centerpiece of campaigns to bring in foreign students, who now make up more than 10% of the student body at Santa Monica--the clear leader of the pack when it comes to playing the recruiting game.
"We are careful to say we are near Los Angeles, but not in Los Angeles," said Elena Garate-Eskey, who, as dean of international education, canvasses the globe for prospects. "We are 16 blocks from the bay where they film 'Baywatch.' "
The reason for the roundup of foreign students? They are the cash cows of higher education.
"That's where the money is," said Mary Ann Keating, who has made overseas recruiting trips for El Camino Community College in Torrance.
While California residents pay a mere $13 a unit--averaging $350-$400 a year in fees for a full load of courses--international students pay about 10 times as much. For them, fees, surcharges and nonresident tuition totals $3,500 to $4,000 a year.
Unlike U.S. citizens who come from other states to enroll, those holding foreign student visas cannot establish California residency to avoid nonresident fees after a year.
At Santa Monica College, the fees from more than 2,300 international students add up to $11 million a year at a school whose total budget is $70 million.
The surplus cash helped the college avoid cutbacks when Sacramento began providing fewer tax dollars in the early 1990s. More recently, it helped buy an $8.5-million building for the college's just opened Academy of Entertainment and Technology, which is training 140 students in computer animation, visual effects and other skills needed by the entertainment industry.
All of which makes other community colleges envious.
"I would love to have a beach one mile from my campus," said Robert Frost, international program director at Parkland College in Champaign, Ill., who also serves as national community college coordinator for the National Assn. of Foreign Student Affairs.
Frost has heard "all of the stories" about Santa Monica's success at drawing foreign students. "The surf's always up," he said. "Coming from corn country, I don't have corn plastered across the front of my brochures."
High-profile American universities for decades have been a magnet for foreign students, whose education has become a $7-billion-a-year industry in the United States. For while American public schools have suffered in international rankings, the nation's higher education institutions have been lauded as the best in the world, revered for their research and instruction and their ability to encourage creativity in students.
Universities such as UCLA and USC have well-established followings around the globe. USC has been recruiting overseas since the 1920s and its enrollment of 4,183 international students last fall was third highest in the nation, behind Boston University and New York University.
Community colleges, in contrast to the big universities, are simpler places--more reliant on state funding--where the full tuition paid by foreign students can make a big difference. Eight of nine campuses in the Los Angeles Community College District, for instance, face budgets cuts.
"The potential is enormous," said Philip Weston, chancellor of the three-campus Ventura County college district.
Weston last year reassigned Oxnard College President Elise Sneider to join the ranks of community college recruiters who venture overseas to find students.
Since then, Sneider has traveled to Asia three times, including a 33-day expedition in May that took her to Hong Kong, Indonesia, Thailand and Russia.
Foreign students are beginning to trickle in to the Ventura County campuses, but not enough yet to cover her six-figure salary, staff and travel expenses. "We anticipate that within three years we will be self-supporting," she said. "Like any business, it takes a while to get going."
It's not a trickle elsewhere. Foreign student enrollment at all types of U.S. colleges and universities jumped by about 15,000, or 2.5% nationwide, during the 1996-97 school year, said Todd M. Davis, research director of the New York City-based Institute of International Education. He attributes much of that to how many community colleges have plunged into overseas recruiting.