Patricia Sebastian has done her bit for the Kansas City economy.
The student from India is one of the thousands of international students who come into the 14-county metro area to attend college.
Together, from 2008 through 2012, those students paid nearly $52.5 million in tuition and contributed an additional $41.4 million through payments for rent, food, transportation and other living costs, according to a recent report by the Global Cities Initiative, a joint project of the Brookings Institution and JPMorgan Chase.
“It feels good,” said Sebastian, 24, who attended the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
And while the international students’ contribution is just a small part of the area’s $100 billion annual economy, it “is still real dollars in my book,” said Frank Lenk, chief economist at the Mid-America Regional Council.
“Education is an export that functions like tourism since it brings in people and their dollars,” he said. “It is a real important component of success for the region.”
Nationwide, more than 819,000 international students contributed more than $24 billion to the U.S. economy last year, according to the Institute of International Education.
For its report, Brookings looked at 118 metropolitan areas with at least 1,500 international students. In the Kansas City area, the top destinations included UMKC, Avila University, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Park University and the University of Kansas’ medical school.
In spring 2014, UMKC had 1,248 international students on campus.
The top five exporters of students to the Kansas City area: India, 845 students; China, 654 students; Saudi Arabia, 470; South Korea, 401; and Kenya, 255.
The economic contribution to the Kansas City area topped that bestowed upon Columbia (3,285 students responsible for $50.5 million in tuition and $38.9 million for living costs) and Lawrence (2,793 students, $48.3 million and $30.6 million).
But it’s a long way from the 8,856 international students in the St. Louis area, who contributed $238.2 million for tuition and $118.3 million in living costs.
The idea behind the report, author and Brookings fellow Neil Ruiz said in an interview, was to help mayors and other regional leaders “realize the full benefit of foreign students’ local presence.”
Kansas City Mayor Sly James said he gets it.
“Certainly, I appreciate international students bringing their spending power to Kansas City,” James said. “But above all, I welcome their perspective, their talent and their creativity to our community.”
Sandra Gault, UMKC’s director of international student affairs, said it is not uncommon for some foreign students who graduate with a degree in a STEM field — science, technology, engineering and math — to then land a paid internship or gain practical training at an area business.
That’s how things are working out for Sebastian. After graduating from UMKC in August with a master’s degree in electrical engineering, she now is interning and earning more than $50,000 a year with Black & Veatch. But she expects eventually to take the skills she has acquired in Kansas City back to India.
“I’m earning way more than I spent,” she said, referring to her tuition and living costs. “And it is not just the money; I’m able to fulfill my dreams.”