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Is Traditional High School Exchange Fading Away?: Charting New Pathways for International High School Education in the U.S. 

 July 21, 2014

By  Laura Kosloff

Last week I posted an infographic with data from the Institute of International Education (IIE) on post-secondary international students in the U.S. The data in the infographic showed (among other things) that the number of college-level international students in the U.S. has climbed steadily, and almost half of these students come from China, India, and South Korea.

Another recent IIE report looks at what’s going on with international students at the high school level in the U.S. When most of us think of the “typical” international student in American high schools, many of us immediately think of exchange students: student who are here for a semester or academic year, whose goal is to immerse themselves in English and American culture for that period of time, learn a bit how American teens and families live, and then return home with (hopefully) a more accurate understanding of our culture and customs.

©2014 Creative_Outlet, Thinkstock.com
©2014 Creative_Outlet, Thinkstock.com

That is no longer the “typical” international student in a U.S. high school. According to the July 2014 research brief, Charting New Pathways to Higher Education: International Secondary Students in the United States, about 49,000 students (67 percent of international secondary students in the U.S. during 2013-2014) were enrolled in U.S. high schools with F-1 visas to earn a U.S. diploma. Only 24,000 (33 percent) were participating in exchange programs on J-1 visas. Who uses the two high school visa options differs significantly. Chinese and South Korean students dominate the F-1 visa program, while students from Europe and South America dominate the J-1 visa program. Since U.S. visa policies restrict both F-1 and J-1 visa students to no more than one year of study in public schools, the vast majority of F-1 visa students attend private schools.

The trends reflected in these numbers have been building over time as participation in the F-1 visa program has steadily grown, while the J-1 visa program has not. But the message is clear. The typical notion of international students spending “an exchange year in a U.S. public school” is no longer the norm. Instead, international students are moving to the U.S. for their high school careers, often with the plan to pursue college in the U.S. as well. That’s an entirely different objective, and an entirely different experience. As the report itself notes:

One risk of the increasing focus on international secondary students enrolling in U.S. high school to earn diplomas is that the important goals of student exchange programs may become sidelined. Understanding the differing demographics between inbound exchange students in the U.S. and international students seeking U.S. diplomas is necessary to strengthen all forms of secondary student mobility and to preserve the specific mission of exchange programs.

For a recent article that summarizes some of these statistics in a readable way, see The Younger International Student, Inside Higher Ed, July 8, 2014. The IIE report can be downloaded at the IIE website here.

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  • interesting article. We are hosting our 1st student on a J-1 visa. But we do have local private schools that have international students enrolled. I assume they are on F-1 visas.

    • Hello Susan,
      Thanks for your note. It’s not impossible for J-1 students to be at private schools, just not common. You would probably be able to tell once you talked to a student or host family: F-1 students apply directly to a school, for example, not through an exchange program. The school is responsible for students’ visas and other documentation. Often there is no local coordinator/program contact. Different program, different purposes.

      Congratulations on your student! Best wishes for a good year — learn everything you can, and don’t let little things become big things — speak up and use your local contact whenever you need to.

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