The recent college admissions scandal has focused much of the nation on the competition for places at top U.S. universities, and the extreme measures that seemingly rational people will take to secure an advantage for their children have shocked many of us. However, in some parts of the world, the revelations are unlikely to cause much surprise, because the pressure to win a place at a prestigious American school is so intense that parents will stop at nothing to help their children achieve it. Such a level of competition may be unhealthy, but it is testament to the perceived value of an American college education both domestically and abroad.
Over the course of a few decades, U.S. colleges have established themselves as the world’s magnets for the brightest and most ambitious students worldwide. The U.S. hosted a record 1.09 million international students in 2017, and they contributed $42.4 billion to the economy through tuition, room and board, and other expenses, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Despite extortionate fees, fierce competition, and a less-welcoming atmosphere, student numbers are increasing—but more slowly than previously, so their contribution to the country should not be taken for granted.
International students not only provide a valuable source of revenue, they make schools better through sharing their diverse viewpoints, adding their own expertise, and offering American students the opportunity to learn from them. Unlike tourists, they have the time to build relationships with Americans and understand the multifaceted culture, which is so often portrayed as monolithic overseas.
Many of these students become unofficial “ambassadors” for the U.S., influencing the opinions of their compatriots.
We need to do all we can to encourage even more international students to choose the U.S., especially those less privileged who may be instrumental in their country’s development. At the same time, we have to give more American students the opportunity to broaden their horizons and see the world from different perspectives by studying abroad. For too long, studying abroad has been the preserve of the elite, even though flight costs have plummeted and overseas fees are considerably lower than in the U.S.
Over the past few years, we have seen the launch of the US–China 100,000 Strong and the 100,000 Strong in the Americas campaigns to encourage more Americans from diverse backgrounds to experience study and work abroad, but they have not had the big impact that was hoped for.
Now, the passing of the Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Program Act (see p. 9) may provide the impetus to spread the study abroad experience to a whole new generation of Americans from all backgrounds. The program seeks to increase the number of undergraduate students studying abroad annually to 1 million within ten years, while increasing the number of minority students, first-generation college students, community college students, and students with disabilities studying abroad, and encouraging students to go to nontraditional destinations, with an emphasis on developing countries.
This bill, in various forms and under various names, has languished in Congress for more than a decade, although it has bipartisan support. Maybe now is the right time for polarized policymakers to push forward one of the few issues on which they can agree, pass the act, and share the incalculable value of study abroad with a broad section of society.