Advertisement

In a global economy, study and business experience abroad are critical. Yet Americans stay home while 400,000 foreign students come here to learn. Call it ... : THE STUDENT GAP

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Shadowing the $100-billion U.S. merchandise trade deficit with the ascendant economies of Asia is an equally astounding “student gap"--a strategic lapse that experts warn is laying a groundwork of ignorance and incompetence for the United States as a player in the global economy.

At last count, there were 63 times as many foreign students from Asia on U.S. campuses as there were Americans studying in Asia, according to the Institute of International Education.

The statistic means American businesses will remain at a distinct disadvantage as they negotiate with their counterparts in Asia across language barriers and cultural chasms, analysts contend. Opportunities are bound to be lost, they say, because of limited access to basic information in the markets of America’s most important economic rivals.

“The imbalance implies a huge problem,” said Eric J. Gangloff, director of the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission, an agency created by Congress to foster cultural exchange. “To be able to work effectively with Japan or other Asian countries, we need a large number of young Americans coming up through the ranks who are competent. But this can only be accomplished through in-country learning.”

Advertisement

To be sure, the lopsided relationship is due largely to a laudable American tradition of opening its educational system to the world. The IIE says 438,618 foreign students were enrolled at U.S. campuses in 1993, more than half from Asia. The assumption is that some will end up working for American industry and that many others will return home with a profound appreciation of democratic values--an intangible asset for U.S. influence on the world.

But when it comes to training its own students, the United States suffers from world-class myopia, despite the wealth of international diversity on its campuses. Perhaps out of cultural arrogance, perhaps out of apathy or the fear of the unknown, relatively few young Americans venture outside of the comfort of Western Europe for international learning experiences.

Of the approximately 13.5 million American university students, only 8% are enrolled in language courses and a mere 0.5% go overseas to study, surveys show.

Only a small number of exchange students and graduate fellows are gaining experience in Asia, the Middle East, Africa or Eastern Europe. Instead, nearly three quarters of them go to Western Europe; one in four goes to Britain for study.

Advertisement

In a competitive world, that kind of student deployment no longer makes sense to a growing number of educators and policy-makers. The new thinking on global education is moving away from the time-honored fantasy of reading poetry in Parisian cafes during a junior year abroad and instead refocusing on such practical matters as training engineering students to read patents in Japanese.

“There’s a real shortage of people with technical expertise who know Japan well,” said Norbert Hootsmans, who interned in a Hitachi engineering research lab in Japan after getting his Ph.D in engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology two years ago. “I see a strong need out there, but there are very few people who can bridge the gap.”

Hootsmans now works as a scientist specializing in manufacturing technology development at United Technologies in East Hartford, Conn. For him, going to Japan for experience was the logical thing to do. “In my field,” he said, “you go to where the technology is the best.”

Hootsmans is a success story, but he’s the exception.

Advertisement

To redirect the Eurocentric orientation of overseas study, Sen. David Boren (D-Okla.) pushed a bill through Congress in 1991 establishing the National Security Education program. The program’s aim is to finance overseas study outside Western Europe and build academic infrastructure at U.S. institutions for study of neglected areas of the world.

The program was originally authorized for a $150-million “peace dividend” endowment from the intelligence budget, but lawmakers ultimately wrangled the money from the B-2 bomber program.

Already, however, the program is under pressure. In June, about a month after its first 485 awards were announced, the House defense subcommittee on appropriations rejected authorization to spend interest from the endowment fund to finance next year’s operations.

Proponents hope they’ll have better luck in the Senate, where the Appropriations Committee is considering a bill that would restore authorization to spend $8.5 million on the program. It was funded at $10 million this year and had requested $14.3 million for next year.

Advertisement

“I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding of what the program is doing,” said Charlene King, director of the lean staff of volunteers administering the grants.

King rejects criticism from some members of Congress that the program is frivolous, noting that a third of the undergraduate fellowships awarded this year are sending students to East Asia, a critical and challenging study environment.

“The return on investment comes when these students take their skills into the work force,” King said. “Heaven knows we need it.”

But budget cutters in Congress are also snipping away at another peace dividend program for higher education, this one aimed primarily at preparing American engineering and science students for the real-life challenges of competing with Japan in the global high-technology arena.

Advertisement

Administered by the Air Force, the U.S.-Japan Industry and Technology Management Training Program subsidizes student internships in Japanese companies. (It is this program that helped Hootsmans land his berth at Hitachi.)

Its model is a program, run by MIT since 1981, that has trained about 300 engineering and business students in Japanese-language and regional studies and placed them in internships with Japanese corporations.

The Air Force adopted the MIT design and over the past three years has expanded the number of institutions offering such training and internships to 10, including Stanford and UC Berkeley. It has sponsored an additional 415 students to date.

But this year’s authorized funding of $10 million was chopped in half, according to a spokeswoman for the Office of Air Force Scientific Research, which administers the program.

Advertisement

“We work very hard with Congress and government people to help them understand this program,” said Patricia Gercik, director of the prototype Japan Program at MIT. “But I think America has become very insular. We didn’t used to be this way.”

The consequences come down to dollars and cents. Norman Peterson of the Alliance for International Education and Cultural Exchange, a Washington group that monitors student exchange issues, asserts that there is a direct correlation between foreign study and economic competitiveness.

“Across the board, we have a major gap, and it costs us,” Peterson said. “We continue to be perplexed at how the Japanese do business. We don’t have an experience of any size that helps us to understand and work with Japan.”

In the past, government-funded efforts at sending American students abroad have been broadly aimed at academia. The venerable Fulbright Fellowship program, for instance, has emphasized exchanges of scholars bound for teaching posts.

Advertisement

But now, the focus is slowly shifting to technical and professional career training.

An example is the Japan scholarship at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, one of the programs supported by Gangloff’s federally funded Friendship Commission.

Columbia prepares two Japanese-speaking American students each year for long-term internships with news organizations in Japan. Over the past decade, graduates have gone on to take positions in the Tokyo press corps, raising the standards of Japanese-language proficiency among foreign reporters there.

But acquiring a solid foundation in difficult languages such as Chinese, Japanese or Russian requires a major investment of time, educators point out. Study should begin in high school and continue in college, they say, ideally galvanized by an in-country living experience.

Advertisement

The most recent studies say college enrollment in Chinese-language courses rose about 15% between 1986 and 1990, while study of the Japanese language doubled. But the numbers are still small. In 1990, more than a quarter of a million students enrolled in French, but only 19,490 enrolled in Chinese and 45,719 took Japanese.

Interest in Japanese is spreading significantly in American high schools, where about 26,000 studied the language in 1990. But that’s a far cry from English study in Japan, where the subject is required in grades seven through 12.

David Maxwell, director of the National Foreign Language Assn. in Washington, worries that university study of Russian has recently taken a “dramatic dive” as students find it hard to imagine visiting the area.

“The perception is that the former republics of the Soviet Union continue to be one of the most dangerous places on Earth,” he said.

Advertisement

Maxwell is encouraged by indications that Japanese study is continuing to rise dramatically, although he has misgivings about the naive expectations of easy wealth that apparently motivate some students.

“A lot of students are saying they are going to study Japanese, get an MBA at Harvard or Stanford and then get rich,” Maxwell said.

Yet while interest in Japanese studies has soared with the recognition of that country’s economic prowess, the number of Americans studying in Japan appears to be declining. The cause appears to be the appreciating Japanese yen, which makes the cost of living untenable for many and exacerbates the difficulties of adjusting to life in a relatively closed society.

A study by the Laurasian Institution, a Washington think tank, notes that the count of U.S. students in Japan peaked at 1,769 in the 1991-92 academic year, declining 20% by this year. In comparison, the number of Japanese students in U.S. universities has risen dramatically since the value of the yen began to soar in 1986, approaching 43,000 in 1993.

Advertisement

Study in China has also suffered a setback, but for different reasons. Following the Tian An Men massacre in 1989, when Chinese troops crushed pro-democracy student demonstrators, estimated American enrollment in Chinese universities and language schools dropped by more than 50% to about 700 students.

“Students being shot is not the best marketing” for a host country, said Philip Palin, director of the Laurasian Institution. “But the problem in China is also very similar to Japan. There’s a lack of infrastructure to receive foreign students. There’s no English-language curriculum and a lot of problems with housing.”

Chinese students, meanwhile, topped the charts of foreigners attending U.S. schools, numbering more than 45,000 in 1993.

One of the favored destinations for Asian students is the University of Southern California, which ranks among the top three American institutions in foreign student enrollment. Two-thirds of USC’s 4,189 foreign students in the 1993-94 year were from Asia: 995 from Taiwan, 432 from South Korea, 426 from China, 266 from Hong Kong, 264 from India, 218 from Japan and 204 from Indonesia.

Advertisement

In the other direction, USC sent 112 students abroad, most of them to Western Europe. Fifteen students went to Japan--the same number that went to Australia. New programs are in the works to send students to universities in China, Taiwan and South Korea, according to the Office of Overseas Studies, but no students have participated in them yet.

To bolster the number of undergraduates studying in Japan, the Friendship Commission’s Gangloff is working with other institutions to establish a clearinghouse to provide aspiring students with information on available programs. Meanwhile, a Washington nonprofit organization called Gateway Japan is offering the services of a database it is assembling on Japan study programs.

Former Vice President Walter Mondale, the U.S. ambassador to Japan, has taken a personal interest in the issue. After long negotiations, Tokyo’s Ministry of Education is relenting to American demands that the national university system be made more accessible to foreign students.

Tokyo University is planning to open an international division with an English-language curriculum. Nobel laureate Leon Esaki, president of state-run Tsukuba University, chairs a commission examining the question of how to get more American students into university programs in Japan.

Advertisement

But Gangloff and other educators agree that one of the biggest obstacles is at this end: the lack of an academic infrastructure to prepare students for the trials of studying in Japan.

“The real nut to crack is how do we get more numbers,” said Jackson Bailey, a historian from Earlham College in Indiana and a pioneer in taking American undergraduates to Japan. “But we need to get more undergraduates interested and prepared if we’re going to try to open new opportunities in Japan. There’s the danger that we may throw a party and nobody comes.”

Ironically, the very mentality of the U.S. job market may be the biggest barrier of all to developing young Americans with badly needed expertise in Asia.

Educators lament that American corporations--even multinationals with years of experience battling for business in Asian markets--typically ignore language skills and overseas study experience when evaluating the credentials of candidates.

Advertisement

U.S. employers prefer to hire candidates with business degrees, they say, and are reluctant to invest the time to train someone who might have significant experience studying in Asia. That takes away the incentive to learn.

“If students don’t get the word that you’ll get a better-paying job if you graduate with joint degrees in Japanese and business, for example, they aren’t going to be motivated. There’s no incentive in their brain,” said Richard Drobnick, a USC business professor.

“There may be a general awareness of this at the senior levels of the companies,” he said. “The CEOs are sympathetic, but not at the recruiting level.”

Study in Contrasts

Advertisement

More than six times as many foreigners come to the United States for higher education as Americans go abroad to study. The gap--which has broad implications for business competitiveness--is especially wide vis a vis Asia. There are 63 times as many Asian students on U.S. campuses as Americans studying in Asia.

Where Americans study...

HOST COUNTRIES United Kingdom: 13,890 France: 6,824 Spain: 5,958 Italy: 4,471 Mexico: 3,847 Germany: 2,892 Japan: 1,671 Australia: 1,660 Switzerland: 679 China: 642 Total U.S. students abroad: 71,154

HOST REGION Europe 71.2% Latin America 12.3% Asia 5.9% Oceana 3.1% Others 7.5%

Advertisement

Note: Data for 1991-92 school year. Represents students who received credit from a U.S. institution for study abroad.

COUNTRIES OF ORIGIN China: 45,130 Japan: 42,840 Taiwan: 37,430 India: 35,950 S.Korea: 28,520 Canada: 20,970 Hong Kong: 14,020 Malaysia: 12,660 Indonesia: 10,920 Thailand: 8,630

HOME REGION Asia: 59.4% Europe: 13.2% Latin America: 9.9% Middle East: 6.9% Others: 10.6% Total foreign students studying in United States: 438,618

Note: Data for 1992-93 school year.

Advertisement

Source: Institute of International Education


Advertisement