United States Hosts 46,000 Students from ASEAN, Bringing $1.3 Billion to Economy

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More than 46,000 students from Southeast Asia came to the United States for the academic year 2010-2011, comprising 6 percent of all foreign students in the United States, according to the Institute of International Education (IIE). However, growth has been slow, with only a 10 percent increase over the last decade in the number of ASEAN students in the United States. Many countries, in fact, have experienced significant decreases in the number of students they send to the US, but the exponential growth from Vietnam has buoyed the overall total. Foreign students from ASEAN and their dependents contributed about $1.3 billion to the US economy last year, an average of about $28,000 per student, based on Asia Matters for America estimates of data from the National Association of International Educators.

Taken as a group, ASEAN is the fourth largest origin of foreign students in the United States, ahead of Canada (27,500 students) and behind South Korea (73,500 students). Among the individual countries of ASEAN, Vietnam ranks eighth among all places of origin, Thailand is fifteenth, Indonesia nineteenth, and Malaysia twentieth. The United States continues to reach out to ASEAN students interested in studying in the US via the Department of State sponsored initiative EducationUSA, which promotes US higher educational institutions overseas and has an office in every ASEAN country providing free information and resources to prospective students.

Top Six ASEAN Country Students in the United States. Data Source: www.iie.org, click to enlarge

Growth is particularly strong among Vietnamese students, which have increased nearly six-fold over ten years, from 2,531 in 2001-02 to 14,888 in 2010-11. One-third of all ASEAN students studying in the United States last year were from Vietnam, and they brought the US economy about $400 million. Texas, California, and Washington are the largest recipients, accounting for nearly half of all Vietnamese students in the United States. To capitalize on the trend, universities are increasingly catering to the needs of this cohort. Kansas State University has increased its admission programs in Vietnam, the University of Missouri Graduate School has an admission web page partly translated in Vietnamese, and a report by the Maine International Trade Center outlines ways to attract students from Vietnam amidst stiff competition from other countries.

Competition from other countries is one reason that the United States has attracted fewer students from several countries in Southeast Asia over the last decade. The US world share of international students has declined from 28 percent to 20 percent in the last decade as other countries – such as Australia, China, Singapore, and the United Kingdom – have stepped up their efforts to internationalize, according to the IIE’s Project Atlas report. Many countries have poured resources into sophisticated marketing strategies to attract international students, such as the United Kingdom’s “Education UK” brand, something the United States has not done at a national level. Likewise, the domestic education systems of Asian countries have improved dramatically, allowing students to get a better education in their home country or nearby countries. Through aggressive government programs, Singapore hopes to attract 150,000 foreign students by 2015 and Malaysia aims for 120,000. China and Japan have even larger goals, hoping by 2020 to host 500,000 and 300,000 foreign students, respectively. All this means heightened competition for US education institutions.

The US visa process has also slowed growth of international students in the United States, as tightened procedures and increased bureaucratic hassles in the years after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, have made it difficult for some prospective students to obtain US entry documents. Some of these restrictions have since been lifted but the damage may already be done to America’s reputation as a premier destination for international studies. Some European countries have also made it easier for foreign students to stay and start a career or become a citizen in their host country after graduation. By contrast, the United States has no direct process for foreign students to become permanent immigrants, other than sponsorship through a US employer.

The number of Thai students has declined by 29 percent over this time period, with 8,200 in 2010-11 compared with 11,600 in 2000-01. Students from Thailand brought the US economy an estimated $236 million last year. The majority of Thai students (52 percent) were enrolled in graduate programs during 2010-2011, unlike students from other countries who are primarily undergraduate students. The Academy of Art University in San Francisco hosts 255 Thai students, more than any other educational institution in the United States. Demand is so great that this institution hosts open houses and alumni events in Bangkok.

The decline in Indonesian students over the past ten years is even more precipitous, with a drop of 40 percent from 11,600 a decade ago to 6,900 last year. US President Barack Obama and Indonesian President Susilol Yudhoyono announced in June 2010 a joint commitment to strengthen educational ties between the United States and Indonesia. In October 2011, the inaugural US-Indonesian Higher Educational Summit was hosted in Washington, D.C., and both presidents reiterated their pledge to further develop bilateral educational exchanges in their joint statement at the East Asia Summit in November 2011. Students from Indonesia added an estimated $197 million to the US economy in 2010-11.

Malaysian students over the past ten years have fallen by 9 percent, from 7,395 to 6,735, whereas Singaporean students have remained relatively constant in the 4,000 range. More Burmese students—almost 800—studied in the United States that the cumulative total from Cambodia, Brunei, and Laos during 2010-11. Burma/Myanmar, a former British colony with high numbers of English speakers, is one reason why Burmese students do well in US educational institutions, reports USA Today. To attract more Cambodian students, the United States launched it first U.S.-Cambodia Education Fair in Phnom Penh in April 2012.

The leading fields of study for foreign students in the United States are business, engineering, and mathematics.