Student blog: Strengthening ties between Mexico and the United States through education

Despite its proximity to the United States, the size of its population and its position as the United States’ largest trading partner, Mexico sends only 14,000 students on average to study in American schools per year. Likewise, the United States sends only 4,000 students to study in Mexico annually. In an effort to change this, Mexico and the United States have enacted the Forum on Higher Education, Innovation, and Research (FOBESII), to promote the exchange of students between Mexico and the United States, as part of the High-Level Economic Dialogue (HLED) the two countries are engaged in, which seeks to coordinate Mexican and American economic strategies and promote growth, job creation and global competitiveness in both countries. Part of FOBESII is Proyecta 100,000, a Mexican initiative that seeks to send 100,000 Mexican students to the United States per year by 2018 (University of California, San Diego).

Using data from the U.S. Office of Citizenship and Immigration Services, I worked alongside fellow Rice University student and Mexico Center intern Thomas Hsiao to create an interactive database that allows users to examine trends in Mexican students’ academic travel to the United States. The database offers answers to questions such as what they are studying, where in the United States they are traveling to, and how the aggregate amount of travel by Mexican students has changed since the beginning of these initiatives. It focuses on students entering the United States with F-1 visas, which cover students attending recognized academic institutions or participating in language training programs. More specifically, the database focuses on students pursuing bachelor’s, master’s or doctorate degrees or language training, since these studies are the most relevant to Mexico’s goals under FOBESII.

Since the HLED and FOBESII began in 2013, the number of Mexican students engaged in these pursuits increased from 5,460 in 2013 to 12,490 in 2014 (while this figure falls short of Mexico’s estimates, this difference could be explained by the database’s focus on a more specific group of students). Most of this growth has been in language training, which refers to students who are in four-week-long programs dedicated solely to learning English (Foro Consultivo Científico y Tecnológico). However, while language skills are very important for the exchange of ideas that FOBESII is trying to foster, such programs alone will not achieve its goals, and their shorter duration is likely insufficient to result in meaningful experiences.

Of the students who are pursuing more than just language training, most are studying non-STEM fields: 88 percent of the Mexican students who came to the United States in 2014 sought degrees outside of science, technology, engineering and math. Unfortunately, this does not match Mexico’s urgent need for people proficient in STEM and other technical fields. This is especially important for the success of the Pact for Mexico, an initiative focused on reforming the country’s legal and financial structures, education system and energy industry. These reforms all require a higher level of human capital than Mexico currently has in order for the country to truly reap benefits and growth. However, the data also shows that more students who are pursuing doctorate degrees are studying STEM fields.

Besides what Mexican students are studying in the United States, it is also important to look at where they are going. Southern U.S. states are the most popular destinations for Mexican students, followed at a distance by states on the West Coast. The Northeast, where the Ivy League schools are located, is a close third, making the Midwest the apparent least popular destination for Mexican students. More specifically, of all the Mexican students who have come to the United States since 1999, 43 percent went to Texas. In 2014 alone, 28 percent of Mexican students who came to the United States went to Texas. A potential reason for this is the fact that Texas and Mexico share such a long border, with the Texas-Mexico border making up more than half of the total U.S.-Mexico border. A closer look also reveals that The University of Texas at El Paso alone accounts for 47 percent of all the Mexican students who have studied in Texas since 1999. A reason for this could be its location, since El Paso and Ciudad Juarez are directly across the border from each other, and both are relatively large border towns.

Where in Mexico these students come from can also help explain their preferences in destination. Students who come from cities along or close to the U.S.-Mexico border — such as Ciudad Juarez, Reynosa, Matamoros and Chihuahua — primarily travel to schools in the southern U.S. Hermosillo, another city close to the border, stands out from this group because most of the  students from that city primarily travel to the West. Finally, students who come from cities in the interior of Mexico — such as Mexico City, Monterrey, San Pedro Garza Garcia, Guadalajara and Puebla — are more diverse in where they travel in the United States to study.

The bottom line, however, is that Mexico still has a long way to go in order to achieve its goals under FOBESII and Proyecta 100,000. The growth in Mexican students traveling to the United States has been considerable, at least within the limited range of students this Baker Institute database examines. However, this growth is in study areas that do not meet Mexico’s most urgent needs. To truly make the most of its Pact for Mexico reforms, Mexico needs a large population of professionals proficient in STEM and other technical fields. Another more immediate issue is simply the timeframe laid out by Proyecta 100,000. At the time of writing, Mexico has less than two years remaining to achieve its goal of sending 100,000 students to the United States per year. Failure to achieve this goal would undermine the country’s commitment to strengthening its economic and intellectual ties with the United States, as well as impair the success of its own reforms and initiatives. If Mexico does not increase its human capital and expand its population of skilled and educated workers, its efforts to modernize will fail, resulting in another generation of economic vulnerability and uncertainty.

Raul DeLira is a rising junior at Rice University majoring in economics and Latin American studies. He is also an intern at the Baker Institute Mexico Center.