Education Migration from Asia to the US

A Globalizing World


Given the vast the scope and multiple meanings associated with the term globalization, it would be quite difficult to cover all the topics that this term brings forth. Instead, I intend to focus on one aspect of globalization that I am currently a participant of. I am part of the 1.5 generation of immigrants, who while still a child moved with my parents to of all places, Winnipeg, Canada. Ultimately this journey took me and my family far from our home in China to the other side of the globe to pursue opportunities for further education and work. I, like my father before me, am studying in a foreign country. This is where the similarities end. While my father and mother had studied in Canada as Chinese citizens and on Canadian work permits, I am studying in the US as a Canadian citizen and American permanent resident. While I am still considered a foreigner by the American government, my status differs from others who are not permanent residents. My studies did not require that I receive additional visas or approval. My father however, was a part of a more controversial group of students known as non-immigrant students. As a student myself I am well aware of the controversy surrounding my non-immigrant friends.

Non-immigrant students, especially those from East Asia, are increasingly being targeted by a discontented American public that would like to point to them out as occupying spots in top universities that belong to Americans, of benefiting from the American education system while not giving much back, and of studying in America to get immigrant status and later of stealing American jobs. These claims are important because they may ultimately affect American policy in the fields of higher education and immigration. While there are many foreign nationals that migrate to the US to pursue an American education, I will mainly focus on migrants from East Asia. Ultimately, four topics need to be addressed if one is understand education migration from these countries into the US. Any conversation about recent trends in education migration would be pointless without first understanding and comparing the size and scope of migration from both the pre-globalization and post globalization of Asian countries. Secondly, the push and pull factors that cause the recent influx of students and applicants from the East Asian countries must also be addressed and related to recent globalizations within these countries. I believe that any discussion on the potential factors and motivations involved in Asian students’ decisions to study abroad in the US should include first hand opinions. To do this I interviewed 9 students from Asian countries such as China, South Korea, Singapore, and Indonesia who were studying at Korea University’s International Campus at the time that I wrote this paper. These students are all enrolled in American universities on F-1 visa status and will go back to their respective institutions to continue to study.  A third topic that needs to be determined is if the recent increase in transnational movement of students from Asia to the US to both study and live is an uncontrollable result of globalization or subject to control by individual nation-states and the policies they intact. America is increasingly being seen by students from Asia as not the only choice for a foreign education and thus more in the form of foreign policy may be needed to not only attract but also keep students. American policy makers can potentially decide the future influx of these foreign students and thus the degree to which America feels their effect. Finally we must explore the effects that a globalized education has on both the student and society in general. It is thus imperative to understand the migration of foreign nationals coming to the US to study, quantitatively and subjectively in both the past and present. Greater understanding within the general populous can include the effect that the influx of these students has on not only the American system as a whole, but on the internationalization of education, politics and economics often collectively termed as globalization.

What is Educational Migration and How Has it Quantitatively Changed in Recent Times.

It is in human nature for people to migrate. Push and pull factors have existed for generations and have been causal for such migration. Educational migration entails the movement the peoples from one area to another to gain education. It is not a recent phenomenon, and has occurred throughout human history. Early examples of Korean Buddhist monks migrating to China and India to learn Buddhism and bring it back to Korea have been documented even before the first half of the ninth century (Fogel, 1996). In modern times the definition of student migration describes movements of students away from their citizenship country or birth country for a period of 12 months or more (Spring, 2008). This paper however, is mainly interested in what The Journal of Education describes as non-immigrant foreign students “one who must first apply and be accepted by some accredited institution that is approved by the Department of Justice to issue certificates of eligibility (the I-20 form)” (Vinod, Winkler 1985). These students differ from those who are citizens or permanent residents in that they need special visas to stay in the country. They are of particular interest in the age of globalization which has resulted in massive changes to their lives as well as aspects of their home society such as the economy.

While educational migration is not a new phenomenon, the size and scope of migration within recent years is a new and exciting avenue for study. The recent rise of Asian international migrants within the past decade is particularly interesting, but must first be put into context by comparison with migration both pre-1978 and post-1978 considering events that happened in 1978. In 1978 the United States deregulated its airline industry effectively passing on substantial, “13 percent declines in fares” (Schwieterman, 1985). These real world price drops may explained the sudden upsurge in Asian educational migrants coming to the US from pre-1978 to post-1978. Data from the Journal of Education shows an increase in the percentage of Asian international non-immigrant visa students as a proportion of all non-immigrant visa students from 41.6% in 1954-1955 to 55.4% in 1982-1983(Vinod, Winkler, 1985). This is significant as it the largest increase among all regions and supports the notion that money may have partly been an obstacle for those from East Asia who wanted to study in the US. This is further supported by the fact that another continent traditionally thought of as less prosperous, Africa, also saw a similar increase in proportion of students from 3.6% in 1954-1955 to 12.7% in 1982-1983 (Vinod, Winkler, 1985). The increase in Asian students as a proportion of all students was accompanied by an increase in the total number of  U.S foreign students from 53,107 in 1960 to 336,990 in 1982 (Vinod, Winkler, 1985). This number skyrocketed to 764,495 students in 2011 according to the Institute of International Education’s open door report (2012).  Of this 2011 number, the three countries that contributed the most number of students, China, India, and South Korea, respectively, make up 48 percent of the total number of students (2012). The recent 21st century influx of educational migrants from Asia to the US could similarly be the result of economic miracles in Asia and the prosperity that they created. Although it can be argued that the biggest contribution that globalization brought to South East Asia is increased wealth and prosperity. This increase in wealth may have put education in the US in reach for many families and may thus be a determinant to increased education migration. Globalization too, in the form of international agreements that lowered economic barriers that many migrants post-1978 may have also affected education migration to the US. It is safe to expect that the proportion of students coming from East Asia will only increase in the future. Once students and families had the means to migrate and study in the US, they did so in spades. The motives that these students had to migrate must also be analyzed.

Why do so Many Students from Asia Choose to Study in the US?

In any type of migration there are various pull factors found in the destination country that attract migrants to migrate as well as push factors within the source country that also make migration to some attractive. In education migration, pull factors for studying within the United States can include an excellent education system, the opportunity to experience a different culture and the prestige of an American degree. Push factors within Asian countries vary from overcrowding and competitiveness, to an eastern style education that some students dislike. Through interviews of East Asian international students who are currently enrolled at American Institutions I will discuss some of the more pertinent push and pull factors from the students first hand opinions. Contrary to what most would believe, most say that their own decision to migrate was more important than their parent’s decision, although often the decisions were in agreement. The profiles of these students are in a separate file. Throughout the interviews, one of the most pertinent pull factors that got mentioned time and time again was the perceived quality of an American education, where students learn materials in other disciplines not just within their own major. This preference in style was perhaps put best by a Singaporean national currently studying Psychology at University of Buffalo, “in Singapore I have been undergoing a sort of spoon feeding education for 12 years and I don’t like… so that is why I have decided to pursue an American style education” (Personal interview, 2012). Furthermore the few students that acknowledged that Asian universities are probably comparable in educational quality to that of schools in the U.S did, however, mention that employers in Asian potentially place more value on an American degree. This may be because of the increased international experience and English ability that migrant students often said were driving forces of their decision to study abroad. Besides these pull factors, there are also other push factors present in the countries of many of these students. Chinese students specifically, said that part of their decision to study in America was to bypass the tough studying required for China’s own competitive university entrance exam, the GaoKao. Furthermore, like Chinese students, Asian students from Korea, Indonesia and Singapore also said studying abroad provides them with an advantage in their increasingly competitive home markets should they come back after graduation, and a good chunk of interviewees do. Although these students ultimately plan on going back home, many first want to work in America for a few years to “gain experience at an American business” (Personal interview, 2013), and later work in their home country at an American company. The presence of American headquartered multinational companies with branches in Asia is a definite outcome of globalization and a pull factor for students to study abroad. Once these students realized that they wanted to study in America, many often had to go through special agencies.

Paul J. Kim is an education migration specialist based out of South Korea whose career deals with easing the application process that all South Korean students applying to American institutions face. Paul’s company and similar companies throughout Asia are popular because they offer insight into what American universities are looking for in an applicant. Asian countries traditionally base acceptance off university entrance exams. Asian students and parents are not used the many varying aspects that American schools are looking for. Paul provides services for what he describes as an education “arms race” where no one wants to get left behind within both the domestic and the global sphere. American headquartered multinational corporations which are both a product and cause of globalizations are looking to find multilingual individuals with global experience and English proficiency which an education in America provides (Kim, 2013). These same driving forces are also present in other Asian countries as globally the demand for education will culminate in “7 million [international students] by 2025, with 70% coming from Asian countries” (Yeo, 2003).Much of this global demand is targeted at American universities and the demand for a global education can also be felt in China, where the Institute of International Education (2012) found that 194,029 students went to study in the US for the fall semester in 2011. This number is significant as it represents the highest from any single country. While many of these students and others from Asia are hardworking and honest, there is reason to believe that the education “arms race” has resulted in widespread fraud. A report by Zinch, in which Chinese students and parents were interviewed, showed that 90% of recommendation letters, 70% of essays and 50% of high school transcripts were fraudulent in some aspect (Melcher, 2010). The paper also looked at why these Chinese applicants cheated and found 3 main reasons. First the extreme pressure, mainly from the parents, for these students to succeed and stand out in an increasingly competitive and crowded China. Second, the presence of aggressive education agencies who often make changes to the application to please parents and get students into top schools contributes to the high number of altered documents. Third, the presence of policies within the top Chinese high schools to keep the top Chinese students within China means that ultimately information purposely withheld by high schools must be faked (Melcher, 2010). The immense effort and capital invested by Asian families to send their children to top schools is worth it to some because those who come to study in the US can look forward to the increased standard of living and employment outlook if they stay after they finish their studies (Dreher, Poutvaara, 2005). There is much evidence that many of these former students are choosing to stay after they receive their college degrees to work in the US. In a 2000 survey done by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (2000) on 4200 H-1b workers in the United States, 23 percent were previously students at American institutions. Besides all the reasons as to why affluent students from Asia look to the United States to study, there are also reasons why institution’s in the United States are increasingly looking to recruit these same students. An interview from an article posted on the New York Times titled, The China Conundrum, highlights this point: “Not long ago, Tom Melcher of Zinch China was contacted by the provost of a large American university who wanted to recruit 250 Chinese students. When asked why, the provost replied that his institution faced a yawning budget deficit. To fill it, he told Mr. Melcher, the university needed additional students who could pay their own way, and China has many of them” (Bartlett, and Fischer, 2011). Clearly many other universities will face and are facing similar budget problems and may turn to similar methods to solve these problems.  It is clear that causal aspects of education migration are multidimensional with many push and pull factors from different players such as the student and various institutions. Globalization too, is important in understanding the increase in recent migration from Asian countries in that it has definitely provided more demand for globally educated individuals to work in increasingly global companies. In light of the increased demand for a global education, governments are taking notice. This has led some governments to intact policies in an attempt to either control or promote education migration of students within its borders or within its academic institutions. Whether education migration has become such an international phenomenon that its drivers are beyond the control of nation-state policy will be discussed.

Nation-State Policy and its Influence on Education Migration

While at first it might seem that nation-states undoubtedly do have control over education migration within their borders, just ask any one of the growing group of Americans who disagree with the rising number of foreign students attending American institutions and you’ll be granted a plethora of suggestions, the real situation is whether America can afford to not have international students. In this situation they would also find themselves unable to control the flow of education migration for risk of losing competitiveness within the international community. Traditionally academic systems have been regarded as nation state institutions: “Academic systems were formed as nation-state institutions, even as institutions of the nation-state. Academics were and often still are public servants; future academics – particularly of those representing the interests of the state in core areas like law, forestry and theology – must undergo state examinations” (Bogdandy, 2004). Many universities around the world are tied to the governments that established and chart their research as well as provide their funding: “A German academic system cannot exist independently of a German government research policy” (Bogdandy, 2004).  Governments thus have a vested interest in their education systems because ultimately they contribute to, “effective administration, national fame, and economic profit” (Bogdandy, 2004). It can be argued that a foreign student can also contribute to all the above things without technically being American. In this situation, governments may also have a vested interest in not just nationals but talented foreign nationals. Countries such as the US may not be able to afford losing talented foreign nationals to other countries in light of the potential benefits that they may bring, and thus may be reluctant to intact policies to stop further migration of these talented students. In some countries, demographic reasons have made it such that the government as well as its academic institutions is actively seeking international students to fill empty spots. In Japan, demographic concerns revolve around the decrease in number of potential college students. This decrease has resulted in 1.2 million 18 year olds as of 2008, which is half the number of 18 year olds 15 years earlier (Jannuzi, 2008). In an effort to fill up university spots, Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology(MEXT) has placed emphasis on recruiting students from abroad (Clark, 2005). These emphases culminated in the “300,000 Foreign Students Plan”, a government plan specifically trying to boost the number of foreign students to 300,000 by 2020. This MEXT plan entails many methods to attract foreign students such as cultural persuasion for “Japan Fans”, revision of the international education infrastructure to make it easier for foreign students to apply at Japanese Institutions, creating more classes taught only in English to expand what the plan refers to as “globalized” institutions, and dealing with environmental issues that may hinder the ability of foreign students to study (Japanese Government, 2008). Since the implication of this plan in 2008, the number of foreign students in Japan has according to Japan Student Services Organization (2012) increased from 123,829 in 2008 to 137,756 in 2012 which seems to suggest the government policy has had little effect. This same report however did indicate that the number of foreign students in Japan in 1998 was only 55,755. The fact that a developed country like the US experienced similar gains in foreign students despite their lack of a public policy looking to specifically attract foreign students, suggests that forces beyond government control may have greater influence in driving student migration. While China may not have the demographic issues that Japan is facing, it too is looking to influence education migration through national policies. Many of its top students are leaving the country to study in other countries such as the US and stay there after they graduate (Albtach, 2012). This is leading to a brain drain within China which some fear will be, “very devastating for China’s knowledge base economy because they would lose highly competitive and talented students who can contribute deeply to the development and rise of Chinese research universities” (Chan, 2012). Besides the previously described policies that many Chinese high schools do to try and keep their brightest students, another effort to presumably limit education migration out of their country is China’s Ministry of Education’s policy which has, according to CollegeBoard (2013), the company responsible for the American SAT college entrance exam, “prohibited the administration of foreign admission tests to mainland Chinese national students within mainland China”. While a specific reason for such a policy was never cited on the CollegeBoard website, this policy is presumably meant to limit the availability of a test required to study abroad at American universities in an attempt to curb China’s brain drain. This national policy however, has had the unintended consequence of mass migration of test takers from mainland China to Hong Kong and South Korea. It was reported that an estimated 95 percent of SAT test takers in Hong Kong were actually from mainland China (Kao, 2012).

Another potential issue is whether nation-states can influence education migration through immigration reform for those that graduate. The policies that nation-states have involving immigration may affect the original migration choice of those students that are set on permanent migration after graduation. America too, like China, is facing an brain drain problem. It is different in that it involves highly skilled graduates who wish to stay but cannot because of strict immigration policies. Issues like this have made public headlines with CNNMoney describing this growing problem that some policy makers are looking to change, “There’s fear U.S. Immigration laws could cripple the nation’s economic growth. That’s why a group of senators this week suggested creating a fast track to award green cards to foreign students in STEM fields(science, technology, engineering and math)” (Pagliery, 2013). The journalist followed the excerpts of Shailesh Deshpande who originally came to study at Virginia Tech on a student visa. Due to the current system that, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration (2013) government website, mandates, “No more than 7 percent of the visas may be issued to natives of any one independent country in a fiscal year”, applicants from individual countries with a large number of applicants, such as those from Asia, have a relatively difficult time getting a green card compared to applicants from non-Asian countries (Pagliery, 2013). The American government may thus be able to influence student migration by creating a better environment for new graduates through policy change. Furthermore there may also be an incentive for such a policy change in that former non-immigrant students may become immigrants after graduation and contribute like other Americans fully to the economy.

Any actual policy change that truly effects education migration is done with a keen eye to preserve and protect the competitiveness of an individual nation-state within the global sphere. This over-arching goal created by governments and perpetuated partly through academic systems means that government policy may not be able to completely eradicate educational migration. The policies that do exist are often to protect domestic systems like those in China and Japan and are not completely successful in their intended effects. America may have the power to marginally increase or limit the number of international students at its institutions through policy change and may also have the ability to influence those that do study to stay; ultimately effects of such change and education migration in need to be considered.

Education Migration and its effect on Nation-State Interests and Students

Education migration has always been significant in America as American institutions have become synonymous as “magnets for foreign talent” (Batalova, 2007). The various implications that foreign students bring to American institutions are multidimensional in effects. In a positive outlook it can be argued that foreign students benefit American innovation and are responsible for many of the discoveries that propel America within the global community. In fact, in a 2006 report by the Institute of International Education, it was found that one third of all Nobel Laureates recipients from America are in fact immigrants, many of whom undoubtedly made their prize winning discoveries while studying at American institutions. The effects that immigrants have on advancing America within the global community also involve advancement of the economy. NAFSA: Association of International Educators (2006), reported that foreign students and their families in 2004-2005 contributed 13 billion dollars to the US economy. Many of America’s most identifiable companies have also been set up by foreigners. A prominent example being Jerry Yang, who was born in Taiwan but moved to America as a child to later study electrical engineering at Stanford. His claim to fame was the co-founding of Yahoo in 1995 and in 2013, Forbes(2013) placed his net worth at 1.5 billion US dollars. Although there are those like Jerry Yang, who come to study in the U.S as a foreigner and eventually successfully transitioned and became American, many in the public still fear and misunderstand the effects of educating non-nationals. In an effort to qualm similar fears and misunderstanding found in Britain, Jo Beall, a writer for The Guardian, wrote to convince his readers that international students are good for Britain and good for the British universities: “the erroneous idea that internationalization of higher education is purely about foreign student recruitment and that this is somehow bad … is simply wrong” (Beall, 2012). Beall argues that foreign students ultimately contribute to an “estimated £14bn to the UK economy each year, helping our institutions and communities to thrive” (Beall, 2012). This number is similar to the contribution that foreign students provide to the US economy and shows why nation-states like the US and the UK may both be interested in recruiting these students. Those opposed to acceptance of foreigners at British institutions also erroneously believe that, foreign students “come and take knowledge out of the UK while contributing little back” (Beall, 2012). Beall who taught at LSE for 20 years, again argues that international students benefit UK students by providing a “wealth of international perspectives and experience in the room, offering all students deeper understanding and practical engagement than any lecture or library could offer” (Beall, 2012). The opinions and outlook of this British teacher and writer on the effects of international students in the British economy and education system can be directly related and applied to the American economy and education system. Perhaps, in America because of the greater emphasis placed on a liberal arts education, the perspectives and different thoughts that international students bring to the table are even more valued. While the effects of international students studying in America affects America in many of the above described ways, America also affects these same international students in many different ways as well. From the original interviews, most of the students described wanting to become to globally adept and this included having a greater grasp of the English than their peers. While there have been examples of students from Asia who have made the college transition in a foreign country a successful and rewarding one, there is fear that these cases are becoming few and far between. An indirect consequence of both the competitive nature and state policies that try and thwart migration, students from Asia are coming to American institutions without being as prepared as they should be. Many have a hard time adjusting to college life in America. This is especially true for students from East Asia where surveys found that these students reported “the highest level of dissatisfaction from personal relationships” (Fischer, 2012). These East Asian students often reported having no close US friends and many wish they had developed more relationships with their American counterparts (Fischer 2012). More than half of the surveyed East Asian International students reported having no American friends compared to other International Students where this number was much lower (Fischer 2012). Some blame of the failure of these students to make American friends can be on cultural differences in independence and social interdependence but also there is evidence that internal reasons are to blame as well (Gareis, 2012). Students often are shy or poor in English language ability which ultimately affects their abilities to form such relationships (Gareis, 2012). Often times these students stay within their own culturally and ethnically familiar circles. Paul J. Kim’s company who also often gets calls from troubled parents about their children who are unable to integrate at American universities describes the increasing trend for students to be “stuck in the middle” (Kim, 2013). Those that do not integrate well into American society and make no such effort to do so will eventually be in a situation where they are not at workplace proficiency for either their home language, or English. This can be disastrous because newly graduates in this situation will lack many of the skills that their employers believe they have acquired from their foreign studies. Furthermore, as they studied for a significant time period outside of their home country, they may also lack the perfect language ability and customs found in local applicants. For a foreign student to successfully study in the U.S, Paul advocates that the student gets active within the university community (Kim, 2013). This means taking advantage of all the opportunities that an institution has to offer to not only benefit oneself but also the institution too. If the student takes initiative to absorb and participant in American’s style of education while also contributing to the campus environment and American society while as a student and while in the workforce, education migration can be beneficial for advancing both the student and the host country within an increasingly competitive and globalized world.


I’d like to think of my parents journey to Canada as an unlikely successful example of foreign students participating in education migration. There were of course a few differences between the journey that my parents underwent and the trails of current students studying in the United States. Current students, unlike my parents did not have to worry about their middle age or a kid. By the time my parents had migrated, they had already obtained graduate degrees from China but completely changed educational direction when re-obtaining bachelor degrees. The fact is that my mother now works in the agricultural sector of the Canadian government as a DBA. My father too contributed in a similar effect, working as a professor at institutions in the US as well as in Canada. The fact that my parents both successfully adapted to and contributed to their academic institution and the government this institution perpetuates says a lot because they did it at an age where many people settle down. Being an optimistic, I would like to believe that foreign students studying at US institutions today are in a situation that allows them to better my parent’s successes should they take advantage of all the opportunities that their migration has provided.

The topic of education migration is a very important and controversial issue because the flow of students into America may ultimately affect Americans in various aspects of their lives. Because much of the negative press surrounding international students is targeted toward East Asian students, and because I am originally am from Asia myself, I will mainly focus on migrants from South East Asia. Four topics were addressed to try and understand education migration from East Asia to the US. First, education migration to the US has been increasing at a high rate especially in recent years and can be especially felt for those from East Asia. This increase may be explained in economic terms, using agreements in 1978 that lowered economic barriers as precedent. Second, to understand the students’ decision to migrate, interviews were used to identify various push and pull factors within individual Asian countries. Environmental factors such as domestic competitiveness as well as aggressive private education agencies were seen as facilitating decisions to leave the country. Third, regarding the impact that nation-state policies have on education migration, an example being the brain drain out of China, it seems that current policies to limit migration have been relatively ineffective. Policies taken by the Japanese government to try and increase the number of international students at its institutions also seems to have been relatively ineffective. It seems that the Asian market for a global education is a more important driver of education migration than government policy and policies that would hope to influence migration may involve facilitating that demand market. Finally, the potential effects that education migration has on American society and the lives of the students were addressed. Generally it seems as if foreign students have the potential to greatly contribute to the American economy and American ideal, but whether or not foreign students enjoy or successfully benefit from an American style of education ultimately involves being active. Students control their own lives and their accomplishments will be evidence of their willingness to take initiatives and the opportunities that life provides. Globalization has increased education migration to the US by providing a prosperous demand market as well as viable outlets for globally educated graduates to contribute in. America can take advantage of the global pool of talent in East Asia to internationalize education, politics and economics while propelling the American ideal ever forward within the internationalizing world.

By James Xu


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