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Exploring the allure of Thai universities for American students

The globalization of higher education and student migration trends are explored, with a focus on American students' motivations to study in Thailand.

The globalisation of higher education continues to influence universities worldwide. While it is widely recognised that education has become increasingly market-oriented and commercialised, a pivotal aspect of this globalisation is cross-border education. This encompasses the movement of students, faculty, institutions, and academic programmes across national boundaries.

Student migration

International higher education initiatives are prevalent in nearly every country, especially large English-speaking nations. Australia serves as a notable example where, before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, roughly one-third of university students were international. However, as student enrolments declined, many Australian universities faced financial challenges. Similarly, in Thailand, there was a substantial decrease in the number of international students, which had a comparable impact on both the financial resources and the classroom environment.

Historically, international students and study abroad programmes were typically seen as a flow from the East to the West, with developed English-speaking countries reaping the most benefits. They controlled the export of their academic programmes, ensured quality, and engaged in twinning or dual degree agreements. This often left middle-income Asian countries dependent on Western programmes for high-quality international education. However, more Asian institutions now offer English-language programmes, attracting local and international students. Consequently, American students are increasingly studying at Asian universities. While most Americans choose to study in Japan or China, it is important to understand student motivations for other Asian education markets. This study explores the factors influencing American students’ choice to study in Thailand.

Student decision-making process

For most students, the choice to study abroad typically involves a three-step process. First, students decide whether to study in another country or remain in their home country. Next, they consider where they want to go (the destination country). Finally, they select a specific institution within that chosen country. These decisions are influenced by a variety of factors, including knowledge about the host country, financial considerations, the environment, culture, geographic proximity, and recommendations from family or friends. These factors are collectively referred to as the “push-pull” factors.

The decisions of international students often arise from a combination of these push-pull factors. On the one hand, push factors originating from the students’ home country initiate their decision to pursue international education. On the other hand, pull factors within the host country make it more appealing to international students. Most students contemplate two fundamental questions: “Should I study abroad?” and, if so, “Where should I go?”

Motivations to study in Thailand

Thailand is not well known for its quality of international education. It is famous for its nature, cuisine, celebratory atmosphere, and reasonable cost of living. Yet, more American students are choosing to study abroad in Thailand. Finances are certainly a factor. The cost for American international students to fly to Thailand, enroll in a semester of courses, pay for room and board, and travel on weekends is often less than the tuition fees alone in the United States. But finances alone do not explain why these students choose Thailand over Malaysia, Indonesia, or the Philippines. Our research, both qualitative and quantitative, indicated that the typical American who chooses to study in Thailand could be broken down into four personality profiles:

  1. Social tourists
  2. Culture and career students
  3. Authentic trekkers
  4. Self-seekers
The globalization of higher education and student migration trends are explored, with a focus on American students' motivations to study in Thailand.
Credit. Midjourney

The social tourist is looking for an enjoyable time. They are interested in relaxing, having fun, enjoying Thai food, and socialising with locals. Travel within the country is common, and they place a high value on safety, particularly campus and local security. These students mainly find information about the exchange programmes through social media, but study-abroad agents influence them. For these participants, the academic factors that attract them are inexpensive tuition, classes taught in English, ease of credit transfer, and the potential to take Thai language classes.

The second personality type was the ‘culture & career student’. These students are primarily motivated by their interest in learning more about culture and religion. Other academic-related factors include a desire to be challenged academically, ease of programme entry requirements, and recognition of quality campus facilities. This group of students is also interested in interning or working in Thailand.

Authentic trekkers and self-seekers

The third group is the authentic trekkers. They are seeking a unique experience, something distinct from the more common destination choice for Americans, which is an exchange to Europe. Authentic trekkers view travel as a means of personal development rather than leisure. Rather than focusing solely on travel within Thailand, they use Bangkok as a base and explore throughout Asia. They aim to interact with people from many different countries. This is best reflected in the attitude, ‘I want to study somewhere different from most students’.

The final group identified in this research is the ‘self-seekers’. These students focus on the quality of education and their personal development. Their motives include developing their independence and using the experience to build their résumé. They are cost-conscious and seek a competitive edge in the job market, believing that international experience will assist them in securing employment. At the very least, they are willing to make a modest investment to maximise the benefits of the experience and enhance their marketability. This group differs from the culture and career students in that they aim to distinguish themselves from other job seekers by bringing a piece of Asia back to a job in the USA.

Perceptions of the ‘East’

Globally, universities compete for international students by offering attractive academic programmes and building strong reputations. However, Thailand’s international programmes face distinct challenges when attracting students from abroad. These students are motivated by a desire for novelty, adventure, and exciting experiences, serving as internal “pull factors.” While Thailand’s exotic image and nightlife are well-established, this research found that students are primarily drawn to the country due to its rich culture, affordability, friendly locals, regional travel opportunities, and natural beauty.

Many chose Thailand based on their somewhat subjective perception of the ‘East’, associating it with exoticism and unique experiences resulting from effective national branding. Interviews revealed that before departing, students envisaged local conditions with global potential, believing it would enhance their cosmopolitan identity. This imaginative geography and cultural appeal significantly influence their decision to study in Thailand, further highlighting that educational quality is not the sole motivator; they seek a fulfilling experience.

How to respond?

American students recognise the value of transferring cultural and economic capital into their future careers, viewing their experiences in Thailand as contributing to personal growth and professional advantages. From the Thai perspective, it is important to face facts: Thailand is not known for the quality of its education system. Therefore, to attract students, it is crucial to understand student mobility and motivations in order to devise a more nuanced marketing strategy both within the institutions and at the national level.

Recruitment strategies are not a zero-sum game. Universities would benefit from altering their approach to student recruitment to a more collaborative and coordinated message, highlighting their existing socio-cultural advantages. These include edu-tourism, religious studies, language immersion programmes, and courses that celebrate the nation’s history and culture. Emphasizing the allure of unique experiences and personal growth can be achieved through a collective effort among higher education programmes. This approach, which leverages existing strengths and focuses on academic tourism and self-development, adds value to the student experience and enhances the quality of international higher education in Thailand.


Journal reference

Rhein, D., & Phillips, B. (2022). American international students’ motivation to study abroad in Thailand. Globalisation, Societies and Education, 1-16. https://doi.org/10.1080/13284207.2022.2155034

Associate Professor Douglas Rhein, PhD, is currently teaching psychology and conducting research at Mahidol University International College. Throughout his 30 years in South East Asia, he has been involved in international educational leadership, program administration, counselling, and conducting seminars as a corporate training specialist for public and private organisations.

Dr. Brian Phillips has 25 years of administrative leadership experience at Mahidol University International College, Thailand. His research focuses on mobile learning and innovative collaborative classroom technology. As the first Director of International Affairs, he created hundreds of exchange agreements and brought in a record number of visiting students before stepping down as Assistant Dean in 2010 and again in 2016. This led to recognition for the best exchange practices by the Thai Commission of Higher Education. Dr. Phillips has recently completed his term as the Science Division Chair and remains actively involved in curriculum development, alumni engagement, teaching, and classroom research.