Foreign Students in the U.S.: A Good, Cheap Way to Spread Democracy

Foreign students who study in the U.S. promote freedom at home, yet tough immigration laws are making it harder for them to get in

As Washington wonders how to encourage democratic reform in places like North Korea, Myanmar (formerly Burma), and Iran and shore up new democracies in the Middle East and Africa, a not so obvious answer is: invite their kids to study in the U.S. About one in five of the 3.3 million foreign students worldwide who were enrolled in college outside their home countries in 2008 were in the U.S., according to a study by Michel Beine and colleagues at the University of Luxembourg. Foreign-educated students have an outsize impact when they go home.

In 2013, scholar Marion Mercier of the Paris School of Economics looked at the backgrounds of more than 900 presidents and prime ministers in developing countries since 1960. She found that leaders who had spent time abroad as military attachés or for military training were more likely to endorse policies restricting democracy after they came to power. Those who had studied overseas earlier in their lives were more likely to embrace democracy, including former President Ricardo Escobar of Chile and former Polish Prime Minister Marek Belka. Of course, the record is far from perfect: Syria’s Bashar al-Assad studied ophthalmology in the U.K. But overall, Mercier’s work suggests studying abroad can be a powerful positive force for democratic leadership.

Even those students who don’t become government leaders when they return from overseas can affect the political leanings of their home countries. Antonio Spilimbergo, an economist at the International Monetary Fund, found that countries with large numbers of citizens who’ve studied in democratic nations, including the U.S. and the U.K., are more likely to have democratic governments than countries where few citizens have studied overseas. It’s not unreasonable to conclude that China is increasingly open culturally and economically in part because the country sends hundreds of thousands of students abroad each year, who come back with greater expectations for their lives than they had before they left.

Migrants don’t have to return home to have an impact on democracy. In 2013 researchers at Germany’s Institute for the Study of Labor published a study on voter behavior in, of all places, Moldova, the central European country and former Soviet republic sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine. The study found that in Moldovan villages, votes for communist party candidates decline as the number of villagers emigrating to western Europe rises. Villages that send more emigrants to Russia see the opposite pattern. A 10 percent rise in westward migration from a village reduces the communist vote share by six percentage points. The study indicates the experiences of those who go overseas—students and émigrés alike—influence the political views of friends and family members they keep in touch with back home.

Given so much evidence, you’d think Washington would be making it as easy as possible for college kids from abroad, particularly those from developing nations without strong democratic traditions, to live and learn in the U.S.—and then go home and tell their fellow citizens all about it. While record numbers of foreign students are studying in the U.S., the country is losing market share as more students choose other countries. From 2000 to 2009, the U.S. share of all students studying abroad dropped from 23 percent to 18 percent, largely because tougher immigration policies have made it harder for them to get visas.

The U.S. government currently spends $243 million a year to help subsidize about 3,000 foreign students (as well as 4,000 U.S. students studying in foreign countries). That’s not a lot by Washington standards, and it’s far cheaper than other U.S. efforts to make friends overseas—about $20,000 less per enrollee than the Peace Corps, and about 0.2 percent of the price tag of the military’s effort to promote security and democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2011. The return on investment is certainly easier to measure: A Department of State tally of government officials worldwide who studied in the U.S. includes some 30 prime ministers and 40 presidents.

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