American students should study abroad
Arizona Daily Star
March 3, 2009


Opinion by Andrés Oppenheimer
McClatchy Newspapers / Miami Herald
Tucson, Arizona | Published:


Here is a plan that could do wonders to increase U.S. competitiveness in global markets and improve long-term ties with Latin America — send 1 million U.S. college students a year to study abroad, especially in developing countries.
The idea is contained in a bill presented last week in Congress by Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Roger Wicker, R-Miss., which went almost unnoticed in the media amid the legislative debate over the Obama administration's budget request. Under the bill, the U.S. government would give grants to U.S. universities to make it easier for students to spend part of their college years studying abroad.
While much of the world's population growth and economic expansion in coming decades will take place in China, India and Latin America, only a tiny fraction of U.S. college students are getting a global education. What's more, most of them are going to Great Britain, Italy and Spain, supporters of the bill say.
If the United States wants to remain competitive, and secure, this has to change, they say.
"I'm afraid we are far behind," Durbin told me in a telephone interview. "More and more students from areas like Asia are coming to the United States. Sadly, very few U.S. students are moving in the other direction."
According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), only 0.3 percent of U.S. college students study abroad. Comparatively, 6.2 percent of Norwegian college students, 2.5 percent of French students and 2 percent of Chinese students study abroad, the UNESCO figures show.
"Americans are notoriously uninformed about the rest of the world, compared to people in many other countries," says Victor C. Johnson, a senior advisor to the Association of International Educators (NAFSA).
Under the bill, the United States would quadruple the number of college students who study abroad over the next 10 years.
The U.S. government would create a Study Abroad Foundation, which would give international study grants to universities that comply with certain conditions. Among them: expanding the ethnic scope of U.S. students who study abroad so that it mirrors the demographics of the U.S. student population, and making sure that more U.S. college students go to Latin America, Asia and Africa.
Today, while 57 percent of U.S. college students who study abroad choose Western European destinations, only 15 percent go to Latin America, 10 percent to Asia, and 4 percent to Africa, according to the New York-based Institute of International Education.
The proposed Study Abroad Foundation would steer larger numbers of U.S. students to developing countries by giving more grants to universities that set up study abroad programs in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
My opinion: I like this plan. It would be good for the United States — and even better if it contemplated allowing U.S. college students to lower their tuition costs, since studying in almost any Latin American university is cheaper than in U.S. colleges.
And it would also be great for Latin America. While Latin American countries are among the leading U.S. trading partners, and a major destination of U.S. investments, only 4.2 percent of U.S. college students who study abroad spend time studying in Mexico, 2.4 percent in Costa Rica, 1.6 in Argentina, and 1.3 in Chile and Ecuador.
That's a sad situation because people's experiences in college often mark their own — and their countries' — future. It's OK to have U.S. students going to London, Rome, but it's increasingly important to get them to Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Islamabad or Johannesburg.
E-mail Andrés Oppenheimer, a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald, at