Jan 9, 2012

Diversity of foreign students decreasing in the United States

Being a foreign student, the subject of international students in the United States is close to my heart. Moreover, having attended educational institutions in the USA for the past 11 years as both an undergraduate and graduate student, has given me a unique perspective about how important a role, international students students like me play in the United States. Arrogance aside, I know first-hand how many opinions I altered, how many stereotypes I broke and how interesting it was for my American friends to gain exposure to me, my family and my culture. I admit, I am certainly far from being the most interesting man in the world, but I did take my role as a pseudo-representative of Pakistan seriously.

And it wasn't just a one way street of cultural learning. 

I remember first coming to the United States as a scared and nervous but impressionable teenager, fresh of the boat with my own laundry list of stereotypes about the world at large and Americans in particular. Of course, all, if not most of my opinions altered dramatically during college. I'm not going to list every opinion that changed, but needless to say, I really did find who I truly was in college. And in my opinion, it wasn't just the education that opened the world and shaped me, it was also the diversity of people around me. I used to partake in those oh-so-typical late night college chats with my American, Israeli, American, Spanish and Brazilian friends late into the night. I attended Jewish, Catholic, Buddhist and non-denominational services. I took part in mediated political debates with my Indian friends. And I cried and stood in solidarity with my friends and neighbors after September the 11th. And lastly and most importantly, I helped change how my family and friends from Pakistan viewed America, Israel, Spain, the West, Judaism, India, Hinduism etc etc.

College was truly eye opening for this foreigner and I truly believe that exposure to different cultures and creeds while studying in the US helped shaped others like me tremendously.

Now multiply my minuscule cultural contribution to the interactions of approximately 723,000 international students currently attending the colleges and universities across America and one can just imagine the benefits of building bridges through America's international student ambassadors. Right now in the United States, we have 723,000 young representatives from around the world, eager to impress, to learn and to report their experiences back to their home countries. There is no better foreign policy weapon that exists better than these 723,000 students. And trust me, these students are also changing the opinions of Americans across the nation. They are constantly helping shape and break the stereotypes that Americans may have about their country through friendship and collaboration.

Now financially, we already know that international students play an important role in higher education, because they contribute roughly $14 billion to the U.S. economy yearly. In fact, the U.S. Department of Commerce ranks international education as the 5th largest service sector export. In higher education, their contribution is even greater because a large number of international students conduct basic research and work as teaching assistants. For example, the number of international graduate students in my PhD program vastly outnumbers the Americans and I am sure this trend exists at many other universities.

Though financial contribution is important, it is the diversification of America's educational institutions that is the most important role of international students. And according to the latest data released by the Institute of International Education, this diversity is decreasing dramatically.

I downloaded the data for the top 27 countries of origin for international students from 1999 till 2010 and plotted entropy, which is a measure of diversity, as a function of time. Entropy basically measures how the students are distributed amongst the 27 countries. Entropy is highest if the students are distributed equally amongst the countries. It is lowest, when all most of the students belong to one country. The 27th country is "Other". 

The 27 countries included in this study are listed in decreasing order in terms of the number of international students that originate in these countries in 2010/2011. China, India, South Korea, Canada, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Vietnam, Mexico, Turkey, Nepal, Germany, United Kingdom, Brazil, Thailand, Hong Kong, France, Nigeria, Indonesia, Malaysia, Columbia, Iran, Venezuela, Pakistan, Kenya, Russia and "Other".

The plot shows that diversity amongst international students has been in slow decline since 1999 before it suffered a sharp drop after 2007. The reason for this decline is a sharp increase in the number and proportion of Indian and Chinese students. In 1995, only 15% of international students were from India and China. In 2010, this number more than doubled to 36%. In contrast, the proportion of students from other parts of the world has decreased. In the same period, the proportion of Taiwanese students went from 7% to 3%, Japanese students decreased from 10% to 3%, and Indonesian students decreased from 3% to less than 1%. Apart from the 26 countries, "Other", which represent the other 100 or so countries not included in the 26, went down from 60% in 1995 to 18%. in 2010.

Even though the number of international students is increasing every year, the diversity is steadily declining. Two countries account for a third of all international students and this proportion is increasing yearly.

I have absolutely nothing against Chinese and Indian students. The majority of my friends are Chinese and Indians and I have nothing but great things to say about them, their country and their culture. But I believe this overall trend is worrying and needs to be corrected immediately. It is to only America's advantage to have such great diversity in its colleges and universities. I am not sure why diversity is decreasing but it is entirely possible that more Indians and Chinese apply to American colleges than Germans. However the the numbers for other countries don't reflect this hypothesis. For example, why is the tiny nation of Nepal 11th on the list? Do more Nepalese students apply to American colleges than Indonesian students. Or are they encouraged to apply a lot more? To me, this process reeks of politics, and reflects America's foreign policy relations and the lack of visa's to certain nations. This is unfortunate because education and accepting students into colleges should ideally be policy free.

In order to get the balance back into the international student populace and to increase diversity, I believe quotas should be implemented to force the acceptance of pre-screened (for security) and highly qualified students from underrepresented countries. Only then can true diversity be achieved. These young foreign ambassadors will eventually return to their respective nations. If America's colleges and society shapes them into future leaders of their nations, it will only be to America's advantage.