As White House Pushes Study Abroad in China, Educators Question the Logistics

January 19, 2011

An Obama administration goal to double the number of Americans studying in China by 2014 got a high-profile endorsement on Wednesday from Michelle Obama, who called such student exchanges "a key component of this administration's foreign-policy agenda" in a speech at Howard University.

International educators' excitement at this national spotlight on study abroad, however, is tempered by serious concerns about the achievability of such an ambitious target.

For one, the administration is putting forward a challenge but no cash, saying that financial support for the effort will come from the private sector. And getting large numbers of students to study in China—particularly those from groups that infrequently go overseas, like minority and community-college students, as the president has called for—will require the expansion of foreign-study programs in China and of curricular offerings in Chinese language, culture, and politics on American campuses.

Those changes can't happen overnight, experts say.

"That's a big ask," Mitch Leventhal, vice chancellor for global affairs at the State University of New York, said of the president's plan.

Mr. Obama originally announced the drive to increase study in China during a trip to that country a year ago. But while Carola McGiffert, director of what is now called the 100,000 Strong Initiative, said the administration was having conversations during that time with international-education groups, there was little public discussion about the plan.

This newly vigorous public push to raise study-abroad rates coincides with a visit here by Chinese President Hu Jintao, whose government will offer 10,000 scholarships to American high-school and college students.

About 13,000 American students now study annually in China, according to statistics from the Institute of International Education, making it the fifth most popular destination for overseas study and one of the fastest growing. But 10 times more Chinese students come to the United States for educational programs than Americans study in China.

Prior to Ms. Obama's speech, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton sent a letter to major higher-education organizations, calling on colleges and study-abroad providers to double the number of students they send to China by 2014. More than 400 colleges have so far promised to do so, Ms. McGiffert said.

Need for Better Preparation

Brian J. Whalen, president of the Forum on Education Abroad, a membership association of American and overseas colleges and independent education-abroad providers, said he wonders whether presidents and chancellors making the pledge understand the changes that will have to happen on their campuses to meet the goal.

Although a number of Chinese universities and study-abroad programs are holding classes in English, many American colleges will need to increase their Chinese-language offerings if more students are to be proficient enough to function in Chinese-only classrooms, Mr. Whalen said. About 61,000 American students are enrolled in Chinese-language courses, according to the Modern Language Association.

Such hurdles have kept many students from studying in Asia, international-education experts believe.

Institutions will also have to expand their curriculum in subjects such as Chinese literature, history, and economics, something that takes time, Mr. Whalen said. "Otherwise, the study-abroad experience just isn't connected to a student's broader educational experience," he said.

There's also the question of whether there is capacity in China to absorb twice as many Americans as study there now. The Institute of International Education, which promotes international exchanges, tallies about 365 study-abroad programs in China, and Ms. McGiffert said the Chinese government is investing in improving facilities at dozens of its universities to accommodate foreign students.

Jill Welch, deputy executive director for public policy at Nafsa: Association of International Educators, said her members' greatest concern is simple: money. In a time when many college budgets are squeezed, institutions don't have the funds to start or expand overseas programs or to finance scholarships to send students abroad.

Ms. Welch argues that there needs to be federal-government support for such efforts. Legislation that would have authorized $80-million in grants to individual students, colleges, and nongovernmental institutions that provide study-abroad opportunities died in the last Congress.

"It would have put money on the table," Ms. Welch said of the measure, the Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Foundation Act. She added that financial assistance is especially important to send more low-income, minority, and community-college students overseas. "I think we're kidding ourselves if we think it's going to happen without federal-government support. We need to incentivize institutions to do better."

But Ms. McGiffert notes that the federal budget also is tight, so providing government support for the 100,000 Strong effort could have come at the expense of other important programs. Instead, the project will rely on private-sector backing. Already, she said, companies have donated more than $3.25-million, including $1-million grants each from Caterpillar Inc., Citigroup, and Coca-Cola. The State Department estimates the effort could cost at least $68-million.

The administration will help connect private donors with colleges and study-abroad programs, Ms. McGiffert said, although colleges will also be asked to raise funds individually. The money will go to support scholarships and pilot projects, such as a short-term "mini-mester" program for students at a half-dozen community colleges announced by Ms. Obama.

Allan E. Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education, said that the federal government already supports study in China and elsewhere in Asia through scholarship programs such as the Fulbright and Gilman Programs.

The Obama administration's push, he said, comes as colleges and college students are increasingly interested in China. "Yes, it's a bold step," he said. "But it's realizable."