US is top destination for learning

Emma Lazarus’s poem, inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, reads: “Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Today it would be more apt if it read: “… your youthful masses yearning to be educated.”

A decade ago, as the Bush Administration led the United States to war in Iraq, foreign student numbers dropped, but in the last five years the US has regained its stature as the world’s top destination for foreign students. Almost 820,000 people from overseas were registered for undergraduate and post-graduate studies last year, a 7 per cent increase on the previous academic year and a record high.

Excellent standards are one reason for this appeal. In the just-released QS World University Rankings, six of the top ten universities and a quarter of the top 200 institutions listed are American.

Another reason is US colleges actively recruit foreign students. Higher education is a big business and America’s college administrators understand they are competing in a globalised marketplace. Foreign students are a source of income and their success when they return home will build networks for the future.

According to the non-profit International Institute for Education, the growth of the middle class globally means more people can afford to attend American colleges. Almost two thirds of foreign students in the US pay their own way. Still, 20 per cent receive bursaries and scholarships from the colleges they are attending.

These campuses are wonderful petri dishes for growing new kinds of global citizenship

And, if students can’t leave home, American higher education will come to them. Brand name institutions, such as New York University, MIT and Duke, have set up in the Gulf, Russia and China. Some 80 US universities have international campuses, the majority opening in the last 20 years. Growing pains mean fewer colleges are taking the plunge. Those that have opened in places such as Russia and China are feeling the pressure of changing geo-political realities.


It is likely that for the near future there will be a renewed focus on bringing foreigners to the US, rather than bringing the US to foreigners.

A mix and match of students’ countries of origin to fields of study gives a demonstration of what the world wants from America, and how American education is providing it.

The largest foreign contingent is from China; 28.7 per cent of foreign students come from the People’s Republic. The next largest, 11.8 per cent, come from India. Most of these students study business, engineering, and maths and computer science.

It’s interesting to compare what American youngsters study when they go abroad. Some 14 per cent of American Bachelor’s degree students spend time studying abroad. Most take courses in social science, business and humanities.

Clearly, the foreign students are focused on the practical. They want to learn about management theory and technology from US experts. American students want to learn about the different cultures with which they share the world.

Of course, foreign students learn about American culture as well. Most will not study at MIT, Harvard or Stanford. They will study at one of the country’s great public universities which for the most part are not located in big cities.

You learn about a different kind of America, a heartland America, when you live in rural Champaign-Urbana, home to the University of Illinois and more than 9,000 foreign students, or the similarly quiet homes of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, which between them have almost 14,000 foreign students.

These campuses are wonderful petri dishes for growing new kinds of global citizenship. At a time when American society is going through one of its periodic fits of isolationism, this may be their greatest value.