American Students in China Report

Over 26,000 U.S. Students were in China in 2011 for a wide range of education abroad opportunities, including 15,000 studying abroad for credit and 11,000 on eight other types of educational activities.

NEW YORK, January 30, 2013—With China growing in strategic importance to the United States, American students are finding new ways to gain valuable experience there, according to a new study carried out by the Institute of International Education and supported by the Ford Foundation. IIE’s 2012 Open Doors report had previously shown that some 15,000 students studied in China for academic credit in 2010-11, marking a nearly fivefold increase in the number of American students studying abroad in China over the last decade. The new study has now found that over 11,000 more young Americans went to China (including mainland China, Hong Kong, and Macau) in 2011 to obtain a full degree from a Chinese university or to take part in learning experiences such as study tours, language study, internships, and volunteering/service learning. 

The increased interest in China on the part of American students coincides with the U.S. Government’s launch of the 100,000 Strong Initiative, in cooperation with the Chinese government. The initiative, announced in 2009, aims to substantially increase the number and diversity of U.S. students studying in China, with a cumulative goal of having 100,000 American students study in China by 2014. On January 24th, 2013, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the creation of a new independent nonprofit organization, the 100,000 Strong Foundation, to enhance and expand opportunities for US students to learn Mandarin and study in China, furthering the goals of the initiative.

According to the U.S. Department of State, “This initiative seeks to prepare the next generation of American experts on China who will be charged with managing the growing political, economic and cultural ties between the United States and China.” Based on the numbers of students pursuing expanded non-credit educational opportunities in China, the new IIE report indicates that it is likely that this goal will be met.

 “This first-ever study to capture the full breadth of U.S. student education abroad activity in China is a window onto the changing dynamics of what study abroad looks like in the second decade of the 21st century,” said IIE President and CEO Allan E. Goodman.  “While we urge all campuses to send more of their students to study abroad, it is also very encouraging to see many students pursuing additional international experience, to obtain language and practical skills that will serve them well in their careers.”

According to this new IIE report, nearly 9,000 American students went to China in 2011 on short term programs abroad that were not reported as study abroad for academic credit by a U.S. college or university, and close to 2,200 additional American students were enrolled directly in Chinese universities to work toward full degrees from the host institution. A tally of all of these types of educational experiences, combined with the more than 15,000 students who studied abroad for academic credit, shows that over 26,000 U.S. students took part in more broadly defined learning opportunities in China in 2011.  Assuming an equal or greater number of students participating in the next three years, the 100,000 cumulative target should be reached by 2014.

The Open Doors Report, published annually by the Institute of International Education in partnership with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, has been the authoritative resource on study abroad for academic credit from U.S. colleges since it began to collect and report this data in the 1980s. Last year, the Ford Foundation’s Beijing office provided a grant to IIE to begin to explore and capture the wide variety of ways that American students are gaining experience in China, beyond what has been reported by U.S. colleges as study abroad for academic credit. 

This pilot effort was designed to complement the Open Doors data by capturing information from a wider range of sources, and on a wider set of activities. Because students usually arrange these non-credit activities on their own, often without the support or knowledge of their campus study abroad office or academic adviser, activities such as volunteer service learning, independent language study, and educational study tours are difficult for their home institutions to track. Taken together, Open Doors and this new report indicate that the range of educational opportunities in China is expanding, and U.S. students are increasingly gaining much-needed language and cultural skills through various activities.

Reflecting responses from over 500 U.S. campuses as well as Chinese sources, the findings of this new study are designed to inform policy makers and education institutions in the United States and in China, researchers in the field of higher education and students interested in studying in China. The rapid growth in the number of students from China enrolled in U.S. higher education institutions—now more than 200,000 from mainland China, Hong Kong, and Macau—has brought increased attention to this topic.

The study also highlights the challenges to increasing the number of Americans studying in China and the inherent limitations of collecting data on the full range of education abroad. “This report provides a fresh new way to look at the landscape of study abroad, and gives a baseline for asking the kinds of questions that will help us further diversify and strengthen American student experiences in China—key goals of the 100,000 Strong initiative,” said the former Ford Foundation Representative for China, John Fitzgerald. We hope to inspire greater research in this field and explore some remaining but important questions. Are the needs of under-represented communities being met? Are interns getting the training and experience they expect in China? What kinds of social media tools and alumni networks can best help returning students to share and build on their experiences in China?”

Only when campuses are able to capture accurately and completely the full range of what their students are doing abroad, whether or not they receive credit, will it be possible to obtain the full picture of how American students engage with the world. This pilot study for China is an important first step in this direction.

Download Executive Summary (304 KB, PDF) or view the Executive Summary online for more details on the report’s findings and recommendations.


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