President Barack Obama's goal of 100,000 Americans studying in China can not be met.
But a close accounting of American students able to study in China for more than a few weeks of sightseeing reveals the US cannot meet that goal.
Nearly all of the 98,510 Chinese students studying in the US speak English at or above the minimum TOEFL score. They study regular university courses in English and have come to pursue at least an exchange year of study while, for the most part, they complete degree programmes over many years.
The assumption in Obama's challenge to increase American students going to China is that the US will eventually match them, gearing up from a current 20,000 to near 100,000 over the next four years. But most US students studying in China are short-term and not fluent in Chinese - and America does not have the ability to generate such student numbers today.
The non-profit Institute of International Education has surveyed study abroad numbers since 1985-86 and releases data in its Open Doors reports. About 1,500 accredited US colleges and universities reported a total of 13,165 students studying in China for credit in 2007-2008 and summer 2008.
Additional students could be studying in China without credit transfer, or for credit with non-US institutions but the 20,000 current estimate by the President is overly generous. In any case, a one-to-one comparison of study-abroad students is misleading.
The 13,165 student count by the IIE includes academic credit for anything from a two-week study tour to a full year. While the IIE does not break down data by country, 56% of US students studying abroad were enrolled for short terms over summer or for eight weeks or less.
This figure is likely to be higher for US students in China and lower for those in English-speaking countries. Also, 40% study from eight weeks to a semester, and only 4% study long term. By comparison, nearly all of China's students have come to the US for long-term study.
Language is the key to long-term study abroad and the US has serious attitude and infrastructure problems. There is a riddle you can hear in international airports:
"What do you call someone who speaks three languages?"
"What do you call someone who speaks two languages?"
"What do you call someone who speaks one language?"
It is funny because it is true. Compared with European adults, 48% of whom speak two or more languages, only 9% of Americans can speak a second language. The real question behind whether the US can send 100,000 students to study long-term in China for significant in-depth understanding of the Chinese culture, is whether America can educate a significant number in the main dialect of Chinese, Putonghua or Mandarin.
China has been building its students' English language proficiency for the last 25 years. As China converted from an educational leadership educated before the Cultural Revolution to a leadership educated after, they made the decision to switch from Russian to English to read and contribute to mainstream international science and business.
Anyone who speaks English can walk on to the campuses in Qufu, Yangzhou, Chongqing and elsewhere and talk to students all day - in English. More than 300 million Chinese speak English now, more than the total population of the US
In the developed half of the country, English classes begin in elementary school and continue into college. China has found online and televised language classes of limited value so, on flights to or from China, you can usually find Western passengers en route to teach English in China.
The US has only awakened to the need to teach Chinese this decade. The number of students who take Mandarin is rapidly growing but remains minuscule and is behind the 3 million high school students who study Spanish, followed by French and German.
Requests for Chinese programmes are 10 times greater than those for other languages. According to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, the number of students studying Mandarin in US schools reached 50,000 in 2005. This number continued growing until the economic downturn in 2008 but pales in comparison with 300 million Chinese students learning English.
The US simply does not yet have the infrastructure - enough Chinese language teachers and enough course offerings - to pipeline 100,000 exchange students to China for in-depth study.
For the last 20 years, China has sent a rough average of 50,000 students to the US each year (more lately, fewer earlier). Some of the earlier students and many more of the more recent students have returned to work in China's educational, business and government institutions.
With several hundred thousand Chinese having studied and lived several years in America, China 'knows' the US. The number of equivalent China-knowledgeable folks working in American government, schools and businesses is trivial. America does not 'know' China and Americans hold many outdated attitudes and erroneous beliefs.
President Obama's observation that the US needs far more American exchange students in China is correct, indeed imperative for future world peace. But the nation just cannot do it in four years.
* John Richard Schrock is a professor of biology and Director of Biology Education at Emporia State University in Kansas. He teaches in China each summer.
I really enjoyed reading this article. Hopefully, some American educators can assist in facilitating the development of programmes for today's students. Foreign languages need to be emphasised earlier along with courses in geography and history. I have spent five years in China and can see that while America's higher education is still a model for the rest of the world, its days are surely limited.
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