Can the Number of American Students Studying in China Ever Catch Up to Chinese Students in the US?

The front gate of Peking University. Chinese students studying in the US dwarf the number of American students studying in China

My work with the US-China Education Trust has sent me digging for statistics again, this time to prepare an acceptance speech for Ambassador Julia Chang Bloch, who is receiving an award this spring from NAFSA: The Association of International Educators. I spent part of this morning looking up statistics about the numbers of international students studying abroad in the US and China. Certainly it’s no surprise to anyone that the number of Chinese students studying in the US dwarfs the number of Americans going to China. I think it’s sobering (and, hopefully, somewhat inspiring), though, to be reminded just how wide the gap is:

In the 2009-2010 academic year nearly 128,000 Chinese students studied in the United States. Again, no surprise at how big this number is. It’s also probably not surprising to many people that Chinese students outnumbered international students from any other country, and together represented 19% of the international student population in the US last year.

What was somewhat more startling to me was to discover that the top three countries of origin for international students–China, India, and South Korea–together represent nearly half, 44%, of the total international student population in the United States.

While Asians make up the lion’s share of students studying in the United States, American students still overwhelmingly prefer to hang out in Europe. China ranked only fifth among international destinations for American students. American students studying in China last year, numbering some 13,600, were less than half as numerous as students studying in the United Kingdom. The other top three most popular destinations were Italy, Spain, and France.

To anyone who cares as much about US-China relations as I do, it’s certainly frustrating to see how many fewer American students are bothering to learn about China than Chinese students are learning about America. As with any cache of statistics, though, it is just as possible to find room for optimism:

China was by far the most popular destination for American students in Asia, and more than twice as many students went to China as went to the next most popular Asian destination, Japan. Also, China was the only one of the top-5 destination to see an increase in student travel from the previous year. American students studying in China last year were up 4% from the 2008-2009 academic year. Of course, a massive upswing in Chinese students to the US–who were up 30% from 2008-2009–dwarfs this figure.

Nonetheless, there is no doubt that student interest in China is measurably increasing.  In my own anecdotal experience, I feel as if I am becoming increasingly aware of a much greater number of programs that offer exposure to China and to Chinese language for students at even younger ages. On a recent trip to visit my parents, who both work at the University of Kentucky, I found out that some of the high schools there even offer Chinese language classes. With Confucius Centers and other similar programs increasing in number, this phenomenon is certainly becoming more common. I had never even heard of a person studying Chinese when I was in high school (and, honestly, I’m a little jealous of the kids who, by virtue of being born later, will have the advantage of being able to start tackling the language at an earlier age).

The Institute for International Education, which is based in Washington, D.C., publishes a comprehensive report each year on statistics relating to American study abroad and international students studying in the United States.

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3 Responses to “Can the Number of American Students Studying in China Ever Catch Up to Chinese Students in the US?”

  1. iNetheo Says:

    well, maybe instead take the percentage as opposed to absolute number?
    US population is a quarter of China’s. that would make the gap seem smaller if anything.
    it’d be interesting to find out how many years those students stay in each other’s country too. my impression is that most study abroad programs in china range from one semester to two, whereas a significant amount of chinese students begin doing four year program undergrad, and the majority master or phd…

    • Mr. Evan Says:

      Those are both really good points, iNetheo. The number we would need to answer that is to know how many Chinese students study abroad each year, and to know what percentage Chinese students studying in America comprise of that number. I’m not sure if statistics like that exist.

      The difference in time spent studying abroad is also a very good point. I do have a number of Chinese friends who spent most of their time at a Chinese university and studied abroad at McGill in Canada for a semester or a year, but there is also a significant number who attend their entire program at an American school. I would argue that most Americans study abroad to supplement their American education with some international experience, while many Chinese students go abroad because they believe that they will get a better education as a whole at an American school.

  2. Can the Number of American Students Studying in China Ever Catch … | study highschool abroad Says:

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