Growing numbers of U.S. colleges and universities are sending more students abroad for international study opportunities and to a wider range of countries.

More than 223,000 U.S. students studied abroad during the 2005-06 academic year, up 8.5 percent from the year before, according to the latest annual survey by the Institute of International Education. The number who get academic credit for study abroad is up 150 percent over the past decade.

As recently as five years ago, although nearly every college was talking about internationalization, many were struggling to develop programs and make them feasible for students, said Allan Goodman, Institute of International Education president and CEO.

"A lot of people had the words but not the plan," he said. "In the last five years, more people have put the beef in the sandwich."

The report also contains encouraging news for U.S. universities that depend on a steady stream of foreign students, particularly to fill graduate programs. Enrollment by international students rose 3 percent last academic year to about 583,000 — the first significant jump since 2001-02. More encouragingly, first-time enrollments rose 10 percent.

Goodman attributed the increase to an easing of visa problems and aggressive recruiting efforts by American institutions.

He said there is capacity for much more growth.

"Half of all the international students that come here go to about 150 schools," he said. "We have about 4,000 altogether. We have an enormous capacity to expand, and almost no other country can do that."

The United Kingdom was again the leading destination for U.S. students, with 32,109 students enrolled there. But that number was flat from the year before, and other traditionally popular destinations like Italy, France and Spain saw only small gains.

Study in Asia, however, rose 26 percent. The number of U.S. students in Latin America rose 14 percent and 31 percent in the Middle East.

Forty campuses sent more than 1,000 students abroad. New York University sent the most (2,809) followed by Michigan State and the University of Texas-Austin. The University of Southern California was the largest host school for international students.

Much of the growth in study abroad for U.S. students is coming from short-term programs, in which students may get a taste of a foreign culture but less of a true immersion experience. Institute of International Education reports that 53 percent of study abroad now takes place in short-term programs, lasting a summer, a January term, or less than 8 weeks. Only 5.5 percent is in long-term programs, lasting longer than one semester.

Still, Goodman says a taste of life in a foreign culture is helpful, and students often return for another program or after graduation.