For over a century, U.S. student exchange programs have supported international students interested in expanding their cultural horizons through academic experiences abroad — providing valuable insights for use in both their professional and personal lives. These exchanges have long been a valuable tool for the U.S., serving to expand knowledge of U.S. culture and promote goodwill among allied states and geopolitical competitors alike.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently called the enrollment of international students a U.S. foreign policy imperative. Investing in this type of educational exchange is directly in the U.S. national interest, providing long-term benefits to American citizens, even if they don’t participate in the programs themselves.
Benefits to U.S. interests abroad
This type of value can be seen throughout the Cold War — a decades-long dispute that was in large part a conflict of ideals between competing superpowers. Throughout this period, over 50,000 Soviet citizens came to the U.S. on various student and cultural exchange programs.
These exchanges intended to immerse the Soviet visitors in American culture over an extended period, spreading unfiltered, first-hand perspectives of the United States within the Soviet Union.
According to Soviet intelligence officer Oleg Kalugin, these exchanges had a monumental impact. Starting in 1958, Kalugin spent several years at Columbia University alongside several Soviet graduate students, working undercover as a journalist while taking classes at the university. Decades later, Kalugin spoke about the impact of these exchanges on the Soviet system, saying:
Exchanges were a Trojan Horse in the Soviet Union. They played a tremendous role in the erosion of the Soviet system. They opened up a closed society. They greatly influenced younger people who saw the world with more open eyes, and they kept infecting more and more people over the years.
These international exchanges were instrumental in undermining the authoritarian Soviet model — not through covert sabotage or military action, but instead through cultural understanding at the individual level.
Around the globe today, negative misperceptions of the United States and American culture spread freely, often actively propagated by governments of other nations to distract from issues at home. By providing an unfiltered perspective of the United States directly to people who live there, the U.S. can counter these narratives at the source — expanding goodwill abroad using first-hand experiences and word of mouth.
These students often go on to ultimately achieve great things in their countries of origin. Approximately 300 current or former heads of state — not to mention countless high-ranking government officials — have studied in the United States. This has meaningful benefits to U.S. diplomatic efforts with those governments, as a leader who has spent time in the U.S. will have developed some level of cultural affinity for — or at least an understanding of — U.S culture.
And the diplomatic benefits can go beyond boosting America’s image and relations with world leaders. A 2009 study showed that the pursuit of educational opportunities in democratic states by young people from non-democratic countries can lead to greater levels of democracy in their countries of origin following their return.
Economic value to the United States
In addition to supporting U.S. diplomatic and security interests, international student exchanges also provide meaningful economic benefits to the U.S.
In the 2018-19 academic year, some 1.1 million foreign exchange students were enrolled in U.S. universities, representing 5.5 percent of all university students in the United States.
Exchange students pay far higher tuition amounts per semester than domestic students. That is because exchange students pay out-of-state tuition rates and have limited access to scholarships to defray costs. Their higher bills indirectly subsidize the lower costs of collegiate education for domestic students.
The economic benefits provided by international students aren’t contained solely in education. According to a recent report, the economic contribution of these students and their families to the U.S. economy at large in 2018-2019 was almost $41 billion, making educational exchange the nation’s fifth-largest overall export category.
This economic activity supported close to 460,000 American jobs in fields including telecommunications, health insurance, and higher education. For every seven international students currently studying in the United States, three new American jobs are created or supported in turn. When exchange students come to the United States they do not only spend on educational expenses. Instead, they stimulate economic activity throughout the U.S. economy, supporting new jobs in sectors not thought of as having clear links to educational exchange.
Of the over 1 million exchange students in the U.S. in 2017-2018, nearly half were studying STEM disciplines critical to the future economic development of the United States. U.S.-born students choose to study in STEM fields at a far lower rate — roughly 20 percent — meaning exchange students in STEM often fill U.S-based research positions and jobs in high-tech industries that would otherwise go unfilled.
As of 2015, at least one-fifth of all STEM positions in the United States were filled by foreign-born workers, including invaluable positions in industries like nuclear engineering and computer programming left vacant by American workers.
Through the Optional Training Program (OPT), F-1 student visa holders in STEM disciplines can pursue up to three years of supplementary work experience in the United States — an opportunity taken by over half of all foreign graduates in these disciplines.
Increased numbers of OPT participants in any given region are shown to improve innovation — as measured by the number of issued patents — while also raising average earnings among college graduates. Additionally, there is no evidence of this program adversely impacting average earnings, unemployment, or labor force participation rates of native-born workers.
While many of these students eventually return to their countries of origin, they can maintain the connections built with former co-workers and colleagues in the United States throughout their careers. These transnational networks serve to further economic ties between the U.S. and other countries, opening the door to new markets for American goods and opportunities for mutually beneficial collaboration.
In this way, educational exchanges serve the economic interest of the United States long after a student completes their U.S.-based education.
International student exchange going forward
When distrust between states makes high-level communication between officials difficult, informal networks become more vital than ever. This is certainly the case between the U.S. and China, as wide-ranging disputes threaten future relations between the two states. In July 2020, the Fulbright program — a cornerstone student exchange program — was discontinued for China, cutting off a vital avenue for improving understanding between the two states over the coming decades.
Reinstating this program is in the self-interest of both China and the United States, molding leaders with the potential to cut through state-level antagonism to promote productive relations into the future.
To support the continued expansion of U.S.-based educational exchanges, the United States must limit delays in the student visa process. Approximately 87 percent of students who went on to study in countries other than the United States cited visa delay or denial as a top reason for their decision. Such delays have become even more prevalent due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, and as such averting lengthy administrative delays must be a top priority in the coming years.
It will also be necessary to ensure that all prospective students have confidence that they will be welcome in the United States. In a leaked diplomatic cable from 2008, then-U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh James Moriarty discussed the belief of some educators in the country with otherwise pro-U.S. viewpoints that Muslim students would not be welcome in the United States.
This sentiment is corrosive to the continued growth of educational exchange in the United States and is all too common today in many regions of the globe. Engaging students from diverse demographic and socioeconomic backgrounds is key to receiving the full reciprocal benefits of educational exchange.
Policymakers must make a concerted effort to counter these types of narratives by doing everything in their power to ensure that all qualifying students have an equal opportunity to enjoy the benefits of educational exchange in the United States.
One way to achieve this is through an expansion of Special Student Relief (SSR) status. This status is available to international students currently in the United States who have had sociopolitical conditions — civil war, military coups, etc. — in their home countries impact their ability to continue to pay for their education.
SSR protections reduce the required amount of credit hours per semester needed to maintain a U.S. visa and allow students to work off-campus during the semester, but not all students facing turbulent conditions at home may apply for this relief. Through the liberal expansion of this status to new circumstances, more students from regions in turmoil will be able to continue their education in the United States — something that suits the interests of all parties involved.
The State Department’s FY 2021 budget for educational and cultural exchange programs is $740.3 million, the highest it’s been in recent years. These programs have been the target of repeated attempts at budget cuts, however, and even now the U.S. lags behind other countries in total resources allocated to the promotion of educational exchange.
In sub-Saharan Africa, one of the fastest-growing regions for educational exchange opportunities, China currently provides the most funding for scholarships of any nation on the planet. The United States, on the other hand, doesn’t even rank inside the top ten. Such scholarship opportunities can create a financial incentive for prospective students from non-affluent backgrounds, enabling students to study in the U.S. when they wouldn’t have had the opportunity otherwise.
While educational exchanges have long been a distinct advantage for the United States — supporting American endeavors both at home and abroad — this advantage could swiftly be lost without proper support.
Over the coming years, the U.S. must redouble its efforts to encourage greater levels of educational exchange, furthering its benefits for both American citizens and the international community at large.