U.S. public diplomacy efforts are about attraction, rather than coercion. A major variable in measuring “attractiveness” of the U.S. is through attitudes of potential foreign exchange students. The ability of the U.S. to attract bright minds from around the world has bolstered the country’s development since its inception and fuels the U.S. “melting pot” narrative. China is now the primary source of these foreign exchange students. The recent release of Institute for International Education’s 2016 Report revealed that numbering almost 330,000, Chinese international students comprise 31.5 percent of the total number of international students in the U.S. Sheer volume holds weight, but from a public diplomacy perspective, the numbers are less important than the attitudes behind them. Why do Chinese students choose to study abroad in the U.S.? Will this trend last? Research I conducted in 2015 concludes that unless the U.S. sees major education and public diplomacy policy shifts, we have reason to doubt it will.
In 2015, I completed an in-depth study of the evolution of Chinese students’ motivations to study abroad in the U.S. Its findings highlighted a need for the U.S. to foster policies that attract foreign talent as the web of international politics becomes increasingly multipolar. These conclusions ring true today.
The rapid influx of Chinese exchange students, who make up the majority of foreign students in the U.S., will play an unprecedented role in Sino-U.S. relations, as well as in the U.S. economy as potential future skilled immigrants. Through historical contextualization, observations at U.S. Consulate Guangzhou, as well as primary interviews of study abroad participants from the 80s, 90s, and today, my research concluded:
- In comparison with students from the 1980s, 1990s, and even early 2000s, today’s Chinese students have a greater freedom of choice and the economic means to take advantage of that freedom of choice. To date, that choice has overwhelmingly been to study abroad in the U.S., but both quantitative and qualitative data suggest that trend is waning as students begin to consider other countries in place of or in addition to the U.S. as study abroad destinations.
- Though modern-day students make the decision to study abroad out of desire for a better education and personal development, practical factors dictate which study abroad location and program students choose. Factors that may affect a student’s decision include the cost of a program and a country’s immigration policies, which may become even more important in the future as developed countries reach equilibrium in terms of education quality.
The student exchange trends described above call for the U.S. to adjust its education policies to continue attracting foreign talent, a factor that is crucial to the economy’s continuing success. Giving international student policies a more important role is not a betrayal to the “America First” rhetoric on the rise. In a recent interview, Thomas Friedman described his new book as a “manifesto for the eye people”. The “eye people” are those who thrive in the middle of the hubbub of globalization and interconnectedness and draw power from it. The “wall people” are those who withdraw into extreme nationalism. To thrive, the U.S. needs to maintain its status as a hub of global leadership. America’s largest group of international students is beginning to perceive the eye-to-wall shift. When will we?
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