News & Reports

Many Arab Students Go to the U.S., But Rarely is the Reverse True

CAIRO—Arab students constituted nearly 10 percent of total enrollments of international students at U.S. colleges and universities during the 2014-2015 academic year and contributed just under $3 billion to the economy, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

These findings were included in the latest edition of the Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange, which is published annually by the Institute of International Education (IIE) in partnership with the U.S. State Department Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and maps global student mobility.

The report found that there were 974,926 international students studying at U.S. colleges and universities last year, of which 89,952 were students from 21 Arab countries.  A little over half of those students were enrolled in undergraduate programs, with 34 percent studying at the graduate level, and 23 percent in non-degree programs. Nearly 5 percent participated in degree-related short-term employment.

The largest proportion of students—67 percent—from the region studying in the United States comes from Saudi Arabia. Most of these students receive funding for their education through the King Abdullah Foreign Scholarship Program. Kuwait contributed the second-largest group, with 9,034 students, an increase of 28 percent over the previous year. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are in 4th and 16th place respectively on the list of the top 25 places of origin of foreign students in the United States.

According to the Saudi government, there were 107,000 Saudi students enrolled at U.S. universities during the 2012–2013 academic year, contributing an estimated $3.2 billion to the U.S. economy.

Explaining the presence of Arab students on U.S. campuses, John Daly, a science and technology consultant and former director of research at the U.S. Agency for International Development said:  “It is no secret that the Arab world is still importing scientific knowledge and technology from abroad, nor that the United States remains a great place to learn about science and technology.”

To enhance the scientific impact of Arab students who are studying at U.S. universities, Edith Cecil, vice president for professional exchange and community outreach at IIE, says they should “seek to establish connections with professors and fellow students that can lead to research collaboration and professional connections after they return.”

US Study Abroad Top 10 Destinations from Open Doors Report 2015

Sadallah Boubaker-Khaled, a professor of mathematics at the École Normale Supérieure in Algiers cautiously welcomed the news about Arab students on U.S. campuses. “This is only the bright side of the story, but the other side is a dark and damaging one,” he noted.  He worries that “most Arab students studying abroad don’t return to their countries as a result of several economic, scientific and political reasons, which is threatening the future of higher-education development and scientific progress in the Arab world.”

Recent reports have indicated that just over half of Arab post-graduate students currently studying outside their home countries do not return after graduating, which results in annual losses estimated at more than $2 billion to their countries of origin. In addition, Arabs and Muslims are 75 percent of the total scientific talent migration to Canada, the United States and Great Britain.

Daly commented on the cultural and diplomatic benefits of having Arab students in the United States, saying that “Arab students in American higher education give a significant number of U.S. students a chance to meet and get to know Arabs of their own age, with whom they share some interests. In these days it is very important that more Americans learn that Arabs are not all that different from them.”

The Open Doors report and others have noted that students from around the world who study in the United States also contribute to America’s scientific and technical research and bring international perspectives into U.S. classrooms, helping prepare American students for global careers, and often lead to longer-term business relationships and economic benefits.

American Students in the Arab World:  

While many Arab students study outside their home region, only a modest number of U.S. students study abroad every year—304,467 worldwide during the 2013-2014 academic year, according to IIE. Of these, just 3,461, or about one percent, studied in the 19 Arab countries included in the Open Doors report.

According to Daly, “since only 3,461 American students are studying at Arab universities, the Arab students in the United States assume a greater importance than they might otherwise. The unrest in the Arab world might explain why more Americans are not going there to study, but the situation must be rectified, for the Arabs as well as for Americans.”

Jordan, Morocco and United Arab Emirates were the top three Arab destinations for U.S. students, together accounting for nearly 89 percent of the total.

From Open Doors Report 2015

John Duke Anthony, president and CEO of the U.S.-based National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, was surprised that the Arab Gulf states were not the top Arab countries hosting American students. “It is Gulf countries where the need for enhanced American knowledge and understanding is highest,” he said.

“This, however, poses understandable problems and challenges to the concerned authorities, for the last thing they want or need is an increased reason for anti-Americanism in their societies in general or on their campuses in particular,” he added.

Cecil of IIE said that “universities in Arab countries, in cooperation with government ministries and academic associations, can better promote study in their countries that goes beyond the study of the Arabic language. There are many excellent universities in the Arab world that can offer U.S. students opportunities to not only expand their cultural horizons and language skills, but also to be exposed to professors, student colleagues and peers who are focused on similar academic pursuits.”

Other international reports have indicated that few Arab countries are attracting overseas students to their universities. A 2014 UNESCO report revealed that the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are ranked 17th, 19th, and 20th, respectively, in the top 20 popular countries for international students, and together hosted four percent of the global share of mobile students at the tertiary level.


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