- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 28, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

More than 2.7 million students worldwide study outside their own countries each year. The 10,000 university presidents, deans and study-abroad and foreign student advisers convening in Washington this week are on the front line in serving these globally mobile students.

The U.S. educators coming to town must address two urgent challenges - providing more opportunities for American students to study abroad and bringing more international students to our colleges and universities, which would help boost our sagging economy.

Last year, the 583,000 international students hosted by U.S. colleges and universities spent $14.5 billion in this country, making education the nation’s fifth-largest export of services, according to the U.S. Commerce Department. In Washington, D.C., revenue to the 14 colleges and universities hosting international students was $278.1 million, more than the income of the Nationals and Wizards combined.

Everyone agrees that educating our young people to be global leaders is not only right, but necessary to maintain our economic competitiveness. Initiatives like the Gilman, Boren and Fulbright programs help U.S. students from all backgrounds gain international experience. But with only 1 percent of American college students abroad each year (about 223,000), there is still a long way to go. The Simon Study Abroad Act in the Senate aims to double, triple or even quadruple U.S. students going abroad in the coming decade.

International education professionals in D.C. this week no doubt will discuss where this massive increase in students will go. Which university systems, especially in nontraditional destinations, can accommodate them, given that India, China, Egypt, Turkey and Brazil and others are struggling to meet the demand for higher education by their own citizens?

The Institute of International Education surveyed more than 500 universities in different world regions. This new survey, released May 19, found the greatest capacity to absorb more U.S. students is in longer-term study abroad programs that last either a full academic year or at least one academic session. This means we will need to address a potential supply-demand dilemma, as most U.S. students tend to study abroad for shorter durations.

An encouraging finding in our survey was that, although language continues to be a barrier, it appears this gap is being bridged. An increasing number of overseas institutions offer courses taught in English in many fields. The very good news is that more U.S. students are gaining competence in foreign languages, with the support of the National Security Language Initiative and other programs.

What we heard loud and clear from overseas institutions was that the United States could effect the greatest increases in study abroad by offering more scholarships.

The U.S. hosts roughly 22 percent of the world’s globally mobile students. But other countries have recently recorded impressive increases in the number of students heading their way. They realize it is an investment that will pay dividends in creating political and commercial relationships. More than half of the international students in the United States study science and technology fields, so redoubling our efforts to attract the best international students is one of the best ways to maintain the leading role that our nation’s scientific enterprise enjoyed in the latter half of the last century.

We should step up recruiting to benefit not only our economy, but also the host institutions. International students enrich the academic dialog on U.S. campuses, bringing expertise and new perspectives to the classrooms and labs and sharing insights with American students who may not study abroad but whose careers will be global.

The United States has more than 4,000 accredited higher education institutions, yet 60 percent of all international students attend just 156 institutions. More campuses are beginning to recruit in other countries as they realize the importance of becoming more international. And the State Department’s 450 EducationUSA advising offices help millions of students access U.S. colleges.

Given increased global competition for talent, as well as expanded higher education options in many of the leading sending countries, America needs to continue its proactive steps to ensure that our academic doors remain wide open, and that students around the world understand they will be warmly welcomed.

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