USC, which has made international recruitment a mainstay of its admissions strategy, is the nation's leader in enrolling foreign students, according to a survey by the New York-based Institute of International Education.
The university moved up from second place in the same ranking a year earlier, mainly because of a surge in applications from India, China and other Asian countries. It switched positions with last year's leader, New York University.
The ranking was based on the overall number of foreign undergraduate and graduate students during the school year that began in fall 2001. As a result, the figures were little affected by the tightened U.S. visa-granting procedures adopted after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Officials with USC and the institute predicted that figures for the current school year will show continuing growth in foreign enrollment.
For foreign students, "the fundamentals haven't changed. America is still the No. 1 education destination of choice," said Allan Goodman, president and chief executive of the Institute of International Education, a nonprofit educational exchange group.
Dixon C. Johnson, executive director of USC's Office of International Services, said a relatively small number of the university's foreign students come from the Middle East or other heavily Muslim countries, the nations whose students have faced the greatest difficulties obtaining U.S. student visas this year.
In the ranking, USC reported that 5,950 of its 29,815 enrolled students in the 2001-02 school year -- or 20% -- were foreign nationals, up from 5,321, or 18.5%, the year before.
This year's figures also showed an increasingly heavy enrollment of foreign students in community colleges. In California -- which for 45 consecutive years has drawn more foreign students than any other state -- the school with the second-largest number of foreign students was Santa Monica College, a two-year school. It ranked 27th nationally, with 3,074 foreign students, or 11% of its student body.
Small and medium-sized private universities tended to have the highest percentages of foreign students because, unlike state universities or community colleges, they are not under a mandate to serve local students.
Rounding out the list of California schools in the nation's top 40 were Stanford, in 31st place, with 2,922 foreign students (20.5%); UCLA, 33rd, with 2,794 (7.6%); UC Berkeley, 36th, with 2,735 (8.5%); and San Francisco State, 40th, with 2,566 (9.6%).
Educators say large foreign enrollments help schools improve their rankings because they tend to bring in more highly qualified students. At the same time, they say, foreign students improve the education of U.S. students by exposing them to other cultures. Also, because foreign undergraduate and master's degree students normally receive little or no financial aid, they can provide a revenue boost for U.S. colleges and universities.