American college students are becoming more adventuresome as they study abroad, showing less interest in English-speaking destinations such as Great Britain and Australia and more in such alternatives as China, India, Argentina, and Brazil.

Britain still remained the most popular study destination last year, according to annual figures released Nov. 13 by the Institute of International Education, followed by Italy, Spain, and France.

But the number of U.S. students studying in Britain and Australia declined slightly, even as the number of American students abroad rose 8 percent overall–to 205,983 in 2005. The growth came in non-English speaking European countries and in Asia, which still attracts lower numbers overall but is growing rapidly.

China is now the eighth most popular destination for American students, attracting nearly 6,400 students last year, up 35 percent from the year before. Though still relatively small at around 2,000 students per year, Argentina and India saw increases of more than 50 percent.

“I’m sure my friends and family would say, ‘Why did you pick Africa, a poor country–why don’t you go to Europe or somewhere more glamorous?'” said Xinh Pham, a Michigan State student who took part in a university-sponsored program to study nutrition in Tanzania last summer.

The trip was “a great way to dip my feet into Africa,” and “it totally changed my views of the world,” she said.

Allan Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education, said a range of factors contributed to the trend, from growing awareness of globalization to programs such as President Bush’s National Security Language Initiative, which trains soldiers, intelligence officers, and diplomats in foreign languages.

“What Americans are doing is waking up and discovering there’s a world out there,” he said.

Knowledge of developing nations such as China and India will become increasingly important as the economies of those countries continue to grow at a rapid pace, said Clyde Prestowitz, head of an economic think tank and former U.S. trade negotiator for technology.

Speaking at the 20th anniversary of the National School Boards Association’s annual Technology + Learning Conference in Dallas Nov. 9, Prestowitz warned that the size of China’s economy soon will overtake that of the United States–and he said U.S. educators, students, and employees will need to keep reinventing themselves if they want to compete. (See the six-minute video news clip, “They can’t move the snow to India”:

Still, it’s not clear whether most students are getting genuine immersion experiences in these study-abroad programs. More than half (56 percent) of students who study abroad do so only for summer terms or other programs lasting less than one semester. Pham’s program lasted just a few weeks. Only 6 percent of students study abroad a full year.

“Time matters, but any experience is better than no experience in a country where 80 percent of our citizens don’t have a passport,” Goodman said.

Other figures released Nov. 13 tracked the flow of students in the opposite direction–from foreign countries into U.S. universities.

The institute found that international enrollment in U.S. higher-education institutions remained steady last year at about 565,000, after two straight years of declines, but that new enrollments were up about 8 percent from 2004-05. That suggests that the slowdown that occurred after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks might have ended and that the overall figure will begin to grow again.

Full data for this fall aren’t yet available, but a separate survey by a consortium of higher-education groups finds 45 percent of institutions reporting increases in international enrollment and 26 percent recording declines. The rest stayed about steady.

The figures are of keen interest to universities, which depend on foreign students for teaching and research help, and to policy makers, who consider it essential that future foreign leaders be familiar with the United States.

Both groups had been alarmed by a slackening of interest among international students in studying in the United States–a trend blamed on anti-Americanism, difficulties getting visas after the attacks, and growing competition from universities abroad.

International students provide an estimated $13.5 billion boost to the economy. The U.S. Department of Commerce calls higher education the country’s fifth-largest export in the service sector.

Last year saw significant increases in students from South Korea, Taiwan, and Mexico. India sends the most students (76,503), although the number declined about 5 percent last year. China is No. 2 with 62,582, about the same as a year ago.

Other countries showing large percentage increases in the number of students sent to the U.S. include Nepal and Vietnam, while Japan, Turkey, and Malaysia saw declines. Overall, 58 percent of international students in the U.S. come from Asia.

On Nov. 10, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, along with a delegation of U.S. college presidents, departed on a trip for Japan, South Korea, and China to try to expand interest in American universities.


Institute of International Education