If you think that recent U.S. economic infatuation with Asia is a product of the pre-crisis U.S. consumption binge, and that sooner or later the United States will forge much closer ties with Latin America, a new study should make you wonder.
Open Doors, the study by the Institute of International Education that tracks U.S. student exchanges with the rest of the world, shows that the number of Indian, Chinese, South Korean and Japanese students at U.S. colleges is increasingly dwarfing that of Latin American and Caribbean students.
Considering that many foreign students who get graduate degrees in U.S. universities tend to become leaders in their respective countries’ business, academic and political elites, this may mean that future Asian leaders will have closer connections to the United States than their Latin American counterparts.
Nearly half of the 620,000 foreign students who are currently on U.S. campuses come from five countries: India (84,000), China (68,000), South Korea (62,000), Japan (35,000), and Canada (28,000). Yet there are 15,000 students from Mexico, 8,000 from Brazil, 7,000 from Colombia, 6,000 from Venezuela, 4,000 from Argentina and Peru and 2,000 from Chile on U.S. campuses.
Granted, most Asian countries have larger populations than those of Latin America, and that may be reflected in the figures. But, leaving aside that Mexico or even Brazil are much closer geographically and culturally to the United States, the study shows that the numbers of foreign students from Asia are growing much faster than those from Latin America.
Last year, the number of Chinese students in U.S. colleges grew by 20 percent, Indian students by 13 percent and South Korean students by 11 percent. Comparatively, the number of Mexican students grew by 7 percent, Brazilians by 6 percent, and Colombians dropped by 1 percent.
Interestingly, the number of Vietnamese students in U.S. colleges rose by 45 percent last year to nearly 9,000 students. This means that Vietnam, a Communist-ruled country with less than half the population of Brazil, has more students in U.S. colleges than Brazil or any other South American country.
“The number of Asian students keeps growing faster and faster,” says Allan Goodman, president of the institute.
According to the University of Shanghai’s ranking of the world’s 500 best universities, 15 of the world’s 17 best universities are in the United States. Asian families are very focused on getting the best education for their children, and go though all kinds of economic sacrifice to send their children here, IIE officials say.
Allan Edelman, head of IIE’s Mexico-based Latin American office, told me there are additional factors that help explain the trend.
Asian students tend to be more proficient in English — China’s public schools start teaching English in third grade of elementary school, while most of Mexico’s public schools start in seventh grade — which prepares them better to apply to U.S. schools.
In addition, Asian students tend to find ways to get financial help from U.S. universities: Most then pursue post-graduate degrees in science and technology, which are often funded by U.S. universities as assistant professorships or assistant research positions. By comparison, most Latin American students pursue post-graduate business degrees in the United States, which are often not subsidized by U.S. schools.
My opinion: What’s most worrisome for Latin America is not that it is sending fewer students to the United States than Asia, but that many countries in the region are sending fewer young people to study abroad — anywhere.
The study shows that while China has nearly 2 percent of its university students pursuing post-graduate degrees in other countries, Mexico, Colombia and Chile have only 1 percent, Brazil 0.5 percent and Argentina 0.4 percent.
That’s a recipe for economic isolation and for falling further behind in the 21st century’s global economy.
Asia has benefited enormously from its graduates from U.S., Australian and European schools, many of whom have returned home with more knowledge, ideas and better connections that helped spur economic growth and drastically reduce poverty. Many Latin American countries have yet to learn from Asia’s experience.