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Boston's Colleges and Universities: An International Center

By Jay Rogers
Published October 2, 1991

Oiver Wendell Holmes once called the city of Boston: “The thinking center of the continent, and therefore of the planet.” Boston’s title “the hub of the universe” has been applied many times. When you look at the area’s colleges and universities, it is easy to see why.

The legacy of education in America began in Boston in 1636 with the founding of Harvard College, the nation’s first institution of higher learning. Today there are more than 50 colleges and universities in the area. Being the largest urban center in New England, Greater Boston claims more than half the region’s 117 colleges. Intellectual pursuits permeate the city. About 200,000 students return to the hub each September; the undergraduate culture makes up about one-quarter of the population.

Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – both located on the Charles River in Cambridge – are world class institutions. Many other prestigious schools also inhabit the area, including such well known music schools as Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music. In addition, the city boasts an impressive array of art, medical, law, and business schools. Nowhere else in America is there such a mixture.

Vast libraries, including Harvard’s Widener Library – the largest in the world, and abundant bookstores hold the promise of locating virtually any book; cultural events and visiting speakers fill the calendar; art galleries, theaters and music recitals are open to the public daily. A recent Boston Globe survey asked students at six universities if they considered New England to be the “academic center of America.” Seventy percent of American students and 79 percent of international students said “yes.”

Many of New England’s colleges grew out of the powerful Christian influence of the first three centuries. Harvard was sponsored by the Congregational Church; Boston College was founded by the Jesuits; Amherst, Brown, Dartmouth, Mount Holyoke, Wellesley, Williams and Yale were all founded as Christian institutions for the purpose of training ministers, missionaries and teachers.

International Population Growing Rapidly

The schools of New England draw students and faculty from all corners of the globe. It is an international community in every sense of the word. Boston has the highest concentration of international students of any city in America. Currently there are at least 20,000 internationals studying in Massachusetts and close to 40,000 internationals attending school in New England.

Many foreign students come to Boston because it has a large international community. In Boston, they can travel anywhere in the city within minutes on a subway trolley and experience the many events and places of interest the city has to offer.

Boston, with its cosmopolitan flavor, is arguably the most “Old World” and European city in the United States. Yet at the same time it offers the richest New World heritage, the ideas of freedom and democracy being germinated right in the heart of the city during its first two centuries. The influx of immigrants in the last century brought it most of its European culture. Currently there is an influx of Asian and Hispanic influence. The international student population only adds to this potpourri. The brightest minds of many nations are being nurtured right here.

One of the main reasons for growth is that area schools are trying to make up for the large number of students who have not been born. The entire U.S. is on a downward demographic trend in the college-age-population. The Northeast has been the hardest hit; the college-age-population in Massachusetts has dropped 30 percent in the last seven years. In order to keep admission standards high, colleges are forced to make up these numbers with students from overseas.

The region has traditionally attracted its international student population from Western Europe, but now the Asian population is on the upswing. Ten percent of Boston University’s freshman class are internationals, with the largest contingent coming from Asia.

With the shortage of American college age students, the region will remain a growth area for internationals at least for the next five years.


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