When thousands of Saudi Arabian students sponsored by a new government scholarship program started streaming onto U.S. campuses in 2005, they attracted attention for where they were coming from. But for their destination institutions, another factor was arguably as important: how old, or actually, how young, they were.
In response to an influx of undergraduates, some host universities took strides  to integrate them into the full American undergraduate experience. Kansas State University, for instance, offered football education and free tickets as, nationally, the number of Saudi undergraduates, and Saudi students in general, dramatically climbed.
Those undergraduates, who enrolled in intensive English for a year or more before starting their four-year degree programs, are by and large still here. But for new arrivals, the Saudi government scholarship program has since shifted its focus to graduate and professional students. Of the 1,399 students on the scholarship’s third wave, who started arriving this spring, only 128 are undergraduates, according to the Saudi embassy.
“It’s a whole different ballgame here,” said Jamal Alsayyed, the sponsored programs director in the University of Arizona’s International Student Programs and Services office. In terms of admissions, graduate students tend to need higher standardized test scores, he explained, and are admitted on a department-by-department level. “It is much more challenging,” he said, “than trying to admit undergraduate students.”
“The graduate school here has definitely been receiving a lot more applications from the Cultural Mission [which administers the scholarship] and from Saudi Arabia,” said Jeanne Loftus, assistant to the director of international programs at the University of Montana. She added as well, however, that the process for offering provisional acceptance to graduate students is more complicated and decentralized than for undergraduates.
On the other hand, undergraduates “need lots of services,” said Kenneth Holland, Kansas State’s associate provost for international programs. In addition to offering football education -- “If the Saudi students are not involved in football games and rallies, then they’re really left out of the mainstream of student life,” Holland said -- Kansas State was active in getting Saudi students to live on campus and participate in intramural athletics. "To try to get them integrated into undergraduate life was quite a challenge, because American undergraduate life was so different than anything they'd ever experienced."
“The graduate students, many of them are married, so they tend to come over with their families, their wives, their husbands and their children, and so they don’t really use university services very much. They’re pretty much self-supporting," Holland said.
Graduate students also tend to complete their intensive English coursework more quickly than undergraduates, Holland said. Some American universities have struggled with Saudi undergraduates who arrived with very low levels of English proficiency .
Partly fueled by the Saudi scholarship program, enrollments in U.S. intensive English programs were up 30 percent in 2006-7 over the year before, according to data from the Institute of International Education’s Open Doors survey . The number of Saudi students studying in the United States has skyrocketed, up 129 percent last academic year, to 7,886.
Of those students, according to Open Doors , 43 percent were undergraduate, 16.1 percent were graduate, and 1 percent were classified as “other,” which includes intensive English students. Another 39.9 percent were involved in optional practical training.