Foreign exchange students

Definition: Foreign students admitted to a country as nonimmigrant residents to attend institutions of higher learning, as other students from their host country attend schools in the visiting students’ home countries

Significance: Exchange students undertake formal studies at postsecondary institutions to increase their cultural exposure, expand their learning opportunities, and improve their language skills. These experiences enrich human societies by building greater understanding among peoples of different cultures and nationalities and often lead to collaborations that benefit organizations, institutions, and disciplines over time.

Since ancient times young people have traveled to other lands to acquire new languages, improve their existing language skills, broaden understanding of foreign customs, access historical sites and geography, and reflect about the meaning of these experiences. The rise of universities and particularly their expansion within the modern era, has created a context for these experiences to become more formalized. Under organized exchange student programs, students spend time in other countries with structured educational aims in mind for set periods of time and report back to supervisors within their home institutions.

Post-World War I Developments

The calamity of World War I caused many world leaders and educators to consider ways in the postwar period to increase understanding among people at all levels of society, but especially among current and future leaders of governments, business, and academia. The Carnegie Foundation of New York provided thirty thousand dollars to create the International Institute of Education (IIE) in New York City for the express purpose of fostering educational exchanges between the United States and other nations. By 1921, this institute had designed a special student visa that would simplify the process by which foreign students could enter the United States for formal study, and it was lobbying the U.S. Congress to approve the visa. The institute was also undertaking the first survey of American academic institutions to gather their views on adopting new programs and approaches for dealing with foreign students. The institute would go on to become a key global hub of information and coordination for foreign student exchange activities and a vital source of information collected from around the globe.

World War II touched every continent and resulted in catastrophic loss of life and demonstrated the potential capacity of humankind to destroy the globe. Once again, the end of hostilities heightened public interest in improving understanding among nations. Private organizations such as the Rockefeller Foundation, Ford Foundation, and the Carnegie Foundation of New York joined with the United Nations and its affiliates such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), as well as government agencies such as the U.S. State Department, to promote formal student exchange programs among American universities and their overseas counterparts. New organizations were launched during this period. They include the National Association of Foreign Student Advisors, established in 1948. The latter body eventually grew to over 10,000 individuals from more than 150 nations under its revised name, NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

High School Student Exchange Programs

In cooperation with their global counterparts, American high schools participate in many formal student exchange programs. These programs are generally limited to students between the ages of fifteen and eighteen and are organized and run by nonprofit organizations with the collaboration of high schools. The Council on Standards for International Educational Travel serves as a nonprofit body that promulgates standards and provides an annual list of programs operating out of the United States that meet its criteria for listing on full, provisional, or conditional status. The 2009 list provides contact details for more than seventy exchange-student organizations. The largest exchange programs in America are those of the American Field Service Intercultural Programs, Student Exchange Alliance, Center for Cultural Interchange, Academic Year in America, Rotary International, and National 4-H. Tens of thousands of American high school students annually participate in programs that may last for a full academic year, a single semester, or only summer session. However, the exact number of high school students in these programs is not monitored by any central body.

Foreign Students in the United States

Foreign students enter the United States by obtaining any one of three types of visas:

  • F-1 visa for full-time academic education 
  • J-visa for cultural exchange for informal learning of professionals as well as student travel and work programs 
  • M-visas for nonacademic courses of study, such as vocational training J-visas are often colloquially called “Fulbrights”; however, that name properly refers only to a specific program, not to all programs that merit J-visas. 

During the academic year of 2007-2008, a total of 623,805 foreign students registered for full-time study at American universities. This figure represented an increase of 7 percent over the prior year and a substantial increase over the 481,280 students who had registered during the 1997-1998 academic year. Between 1997 and 2008, foreign students accounted for 3.5 percent of all students enrolled in American institutions of higher learning. Their numbers have been split about equally between undergraduate and graduate students. The states of California, New York, Texas, Massachusetts, Illinois, Florida, and Pennsylvania— in that order—have had the highest enrollments. During the 2007-2008 academic year, six countries provided 54 percent of all the foreign students in the United States: India, China, South Korea, Japan, Canada, and Taiwan.

American Students Overseas

The numbers of American students going abroad for both short- and long-term study increased 8 percent in 2006-2007 to an all-time high of 241,791. That figure represented almost 1.6 percent of all American students enrolled in higher education during that academic year. Thirty-six percent of the students studying abroad were in semester-long programs, while 55 percent elected short-term programs. Almost 30 percent of entering freshmen at four-year colleges in the fall of 2008 indicated an interest in studying overseas. This positive trend seemed to be due to increases in the numbers of foreign-study programs, greater awareness that globalization requires knowledge and experience with other cultures, and the demands of a highly competitive job market. Some universities, especially private liberal arts colleges, make a full semester of overseas study a graduation requirement; many more require at least some formal overseas exposure. Great Britain, Italy, Spain, and France have been the most popular destinations for American students, but by the early twenty-first century, students were demonstrating increased interest in going to China, Japan, South Africa, and India.

Early Twenty-first Century Developments

After the terrorist attacks on the United States of September 11, 2001, and other international incidents of terrorism, government monitoring of foreign students increased significantly, and many nations instituted more rigid requirements for student visas. The United States put in place a national monitoring system run by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP). Although members of the national security community have remained concerned about the effectiveness of this system in monitoring possible terrorist activity, higher education institutions have come to accept that it is a worthwhile if cumbersome burden in a more complex global environment.

Dennis W. Cheek

Further Reading

  • Bhandari, Rajika, ed. Higher Education on the Move: New Developments in Global Mobility. New York: Institute of International Education, 2009. Authoritative treatment of global mobility of students, professors, and researchers and their financing. 
  • Haddal, Chad C. CRS Report for Congress. Foreign Students in the United States: Policies and Legislation. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, 2009. Regularly updated report for Congress on foreign students that provides demographic data and information about what foreign students are studying and where. 
  • Institute of International Education. Expanding Study Abroad Capacity at U.S. Colleges and Universities. New York: Author, 2009. Part of a continuing series of Study Abroad White Papers that deals with various topics related to overseas study for Americans. 
  • _______. Open Doors 2008: Report on International Educational Exchange. New York: Author, 2009. Definitive annual report published since 1948 that compiles and provides commentary on all relevant educational statistics froma global perspective. 

See also: Au pairs; Chinese Student Protection Act of 1992; Congress, U.S.; Education; English as a second language; Higher education; 9/11 and U.S. immigration policy; Parachute children; Passports.

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