Where Do Latin American Students Choose to Study?

by Liliana Casallas


There are various factors that influence a student when choosing their study abroad destination. Students usually take into account country profiles, educational reputation, university accreditations, a university’s international profile, visa requirements, international student support, fees, grants and potential hardships.   There are may also be additional incentives relating to a country’s capacity to receive international students: a simplified process for visa approval, and permission to work as a student during enrollment, or even to migrate as a highly qualified skilled worker, are a few examples.

A focus group conducted by JWT Education concluded that the principle motivations for Latin American students to study overseas are childhood dreams of studying abroad, as well as the prospect of improved English and enhanced career opportunities.

Unesco* reported over 2.7 million students enrolled overseas in 2007, an impressive increase of 53% since 1999. The flow of students is mainly from Asia (China, India, Korea, Japan, and Malaysia), Europe (Germany, France, Russia) and the United States.   Latin America and the Caribbean represented 6% of mobile students worldwide, totaling 168,231.

Taking a look at the Latin American regional figures, there are some interesting findings. 53% of the Latin American students who study overseas are originally from one of five countries: Mexico (15%), Brazil (13%), Colombia (10%), Peru (8%) and Venezuela (7%). See Table I. Among students from these countries, the US is the most popular destination, followed by Spain.

Country LA Students Top 3 destinations
Mexico 24,950 USA, Spain, UK
Brazil 21,556 USA, France, Portugal
Colombia 17,531 USA, France, Spain
Peru 13,130 USA, Chile, Spain
Venezuela 11,844 USA, Cuba, Spain
Ecuador 7,098 USA, Cuba, Chile
Table I. Source Unesco, 2007.Proportion of mobile Latin American Students by country of origin.

On an international level, the US is the most popular host country (21%), followed by the UK (13%), France (9%) and Australia (8%).  There are new emerging destinations for students who want to study abroad: China, Republic of Korea and New Zealand.

This global outlook is not much different from the regional trend.  Traditionally, the US has been the favorite destination for Latin American students, with 43% choosing the US and Canada as academic destinations, but the numbers have dropped by 12% compared to 1999, and the selection of a host country to study is progressively moving within the Latin American region in the same proportion.  Western Europe (France, Spain, UK, Germany, Italy, Portugal) still remains the second preferred region in geographical terms (31%).

In 2007, 23% of Latin American students were enrolled in a university within the region.  As Table II shows, Cuba hosted 14% of Latin American students, followed by Chile, which accounted for a far smaller proportion (3%). This data shows that Cuba is receiving more than double the number of Latin American students compared to any other global destination outside of the US – including France, the UK, and even Spain.

Country LAT Students %
USA 66,149 39%
Cuba 22,917 14%
France 11,951 7%
Spain 9,422 6%
UK 8,671 5%
Germany 8,310 5%
Canada 6,315 4%
Italy 5,217 3%
Chile 4,331 3%
Portugal 2,805 2%
Australia 2,394 1%

Table II. Source Unesco, 2007. Latin American Students in host countries

Cuba is a particular hot spot for students from Venezuela, Bolivia, Central America, and Ecuador, perhaps due to the Cuban government’s agreements with these nations. In comparison, a far smaller number of Cuban students study abroad at universities in Europe and USA (1,296).

Based on Table II, it seems Latin American students made language an important criterion in choosing a country; resulting in 50% studying in English-speaking countries (USA, UK, Canada and Australia), followed by Spanish-speaking countries  (22%, Cuba, Spain, Chile).

Students in Latin America tend to see studying abroad as a way to ensure the quality of education and/or a step up the job ladder**. Decisions are strongly based on financial factors and country profiles.

It is most likely students that pursue a post-graduate degree are self-funded and this element would imply a greater level of personal sacrifice; therefore they may have higher expectations and rely on a return on investment in the form of additional opportunities that may be available the host country.

Even though studying in the US may be more expensive than other countries, and visa requirements are strict, there is a greater preference to study there because of reputation, location and the opportunity to relocate and work after studying.

Government and regional agreements are often important in leveraging collaboration and easing the bureaucratic and financial burdens of study abroad. Examples include Cuba’s agreements with other South American governments, Mecosur through the the Convenio Andres Bello (CAB), and independent regional initiatives among universities such as the Asociacion de Universidades del Grupo de Montevideo (AUGM), which involves the exchange of students  between 23 higher education institutions within  Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay .

This will provide an important foundation to increase the number of students participating in overseas academic programs within the region’s institutions.

All indications are that the US is likely to remain the most popular single destination for Latin American students. However, factors such as the growth of exchange schemes and agreements at governmental, regional and institutional level across the continent will ensure that student mobility and exchange between countries within Latin American continues to grow.

*Global Education Digest 2009. Comparing Education Statistics Across the World. http://www.uis.unesco.org/template/pdf/ged/2009/GED_2009_EN.pdf**Trends in Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean.  IESALC. Instituto Internacional para la Educación Superior en América Latina y el Caribe. UNESCO. I. Gazzola, Ana Lúcia, ed. II. Didriksson, Axel, ed

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