National narrative for higher education: Is America is still THE place to study abroad?

While the reputation of our primary and secondary education lags behind Asia in Scandinavia, the U.S. continues to hold a monopoly on the Ivy League schools and many of the top Science universities globally, attracting international students from every corner of the world. The United States’ economy clearly benefits from its historical reputation of being the “best” place for international students to pursue their education. During the 2012-2013 academic school year, 819,644 international students poured over $24 billion dollars into the us economy with tuition, housing and cost of living. The National Association of Foreign Student Advisors (NAFSA) also indicate that international student funding “supports innovation through science and engineering coursework, making it possible for U.S. colleges and universities to offer these courses to U.S. students.” In addition to the obvious economic benefits in attracting international students, the U.S. Department of State has a clear “soft power” agenda when it comes to maintaining this national education narrative.

Education USA is a program created by the U.S. Department of State primarily to attract and support international students. It collaborates with international offices, embassies, consulates, non-profits, bi-cultural centers and the Fullbright program. The website highlights that, “The United States has thousands of accredited colleges and universities renowned for quality, numerous programs of study and flexibility to change fields of study and schools.” Strategic framing is being used to highlight the legitimacy and yet personalized flexibility of the higher education system in America. Clearly there is an agenda of soft power in continuing to play up the narrative that the U.S. is the ideal place to study abroad.

This narrative perhaps emerges in the face of growing popularity of foreign universities coupled with a decrease in international students flows from strategic regional hubs over the last few years. Many believe that the novelty of studying in America is wearing off. While China and Korea are some of the largest groups of incoming international students, uncertainty in the U.S. job markets and increasing economic growth and educational improvements at home are leading many students to study in their country of origin. A New York Times article published this year stated that, “the number of South Korean graduate students in the United States has been dropping since 2010, and the Council of Graduate Schools recently reported that graduate applications from China were down for the second year in a row.”

International Student’s debate is particularly serious within the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Medicine). Because many students are unable to work in the U.S. without a visa, programs are being implemented to allow student to stay and work without employer sponsorship. In order to maintain a narrative of legitimacy, higher education is filled with increasing incentives for STEM students to study and work in the United States following graduation. John Kerry recently stated, “Each and every day, I see how we use science and technology to advance our diplomacy.” International students are vital to science and technology innovation as well as well as contributing to the professional world after graduating.

For decades, America has formed and maintained a narrative of educational excellence and technological innovation. With growing powers forming throughout Asia, the quest to maintain the soft power advantage of being the most rewarding place to study abroad has serious implications for both the U.S. economy and for public diplomacy. Higher education in partnership with the Department of State will continue to pursue American educational narrative coherence through strategic marketing, increased program flexibility, and improved post-degree employment opportunities for international students.

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One thought on “National narrative for higher education: Is America is still THE place to study abroad?

  1. Your post on the public diplomacy narrative of American higher education excellence paints a portrait of a striking legacy that may be in crisis. However, my comment is on what may be hidden behind this narrative of American exceptionalism. Is the fact that we are recruiting international students for STEM studies and encouraging them to stay and work in the U.S. related to declining numbers of motivated and well-prepared U.S. students studying in these fields? As a public high school teacher in the late 20-aughts I was told that U.S. students are floundering in these areas, and despite incentives such as hefty scholarships, many students in higher ed are avoiding STEM subjects. To bring the conversation back to public diplomacy and the international balance of power, I wonder if the end of the Cold War has made the U.S. public as well as government officials overly complacent about our place in the world. The Cold War inspired both personal motivation and public money that created a whole generation of U.S. scientists and engineers. But today, without a sense of competition that is tangible to middle schoolers and politicians alike, have we pulled the rug out from under ourselves by failing to invest in public primary and secondary education, and/or do our math homework? If the stream of foreign STEM students dries up, where will this leave the U.S.?

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