In My Opinion

Andres Oppenheimer: Hemisphere’s student exchanges need a push

More than two years after President Obama announced his plan to increase U.S.-Latin American college-student exchanges to 100,000 in each direction by 2020, the program may be advancing too slowly to meet its target.

A new study released this week, issued by the Institute of International Education and the U.S. State Department and entitled “Open Doors,” shows that Asian students — mostly from China, India and South Korea — keep coming to the U.S. in far greater numbers than Latin Americans.

At the current pace, according to my own calculations based on the study’s figures, Obama’s “100,000 Strong in the Americas” program will come short of meeting its 2020 deadline.

According to the report, the overall number of foreign students coming to U.S. colleges rose by 7 percent this year, to 820,000 students.

But nearly 50 percent of them came from China (236,000) India (97,000) and South Korea (71,000). By comparison, the number of Latin American and Caribbean students coming to U.S. universities is only 67,000.

While the number of Asian students in U.S. colleges grew by 7.3 percent last year, the number of Latin American counterparts grew by a meager 3.8 percent this year, the report shows.

Experts agree that growing numbers of Asian students are coming to the United States because, according to the three main rankings of the world’s best universities — including one by Britain’s Times Higher Education Supplement and another by China’s Jiao Tong University of Shanghai — U.S. universities remain the best in the world.

The Latin American countries that send the largest numbers of university students to the United States are Mexico (14,200) Brazil (10,700) Colombia (6,500) and Venezuela (6,200). Reflecting its growing academic isolation, Argentina sent only 1,800 students to U.S. universities this year, the study shows.

At the current rate of annual growth, the number of Latin American students coming to U.S. universities would reach 87,000 by 2020, quite short of Obama’s program’s 100,000 goal.

When it comes to the number of U.S. students going to Latin American universities, at the current pace of growth, the number of U.S. students going to Latin American colleges will reach 98,000 by 2020.

According to the Open Doors study, the number of U.S. college students abroad rose by 3 percent this year to 283,000, but 38 percent of them went to the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain and France, and only 16 percent went to Latin America and the Caribbean.

Still, the number of U.S. students going to Latin America and the Caribbean grew by 11.7 percent this year, much more than the world-wide average. The countries in the region that are getting most U.S. college students are Costa Rica (7,900) Argentina (4,700) Brazil (4,000) and Mexico (3,815) the study shows.

Hours after the study’s release, I asked institute expert Peggy Blumenthal whether Obama’s “100,000 Strong in the Americas’’ program is in trouble. Not really, she responded.

“We are heading in the right direction,” Blumenthal said, adding that U.S.-Latin American student exchanges are growing faster than those of almost any other region, and that there has been a big increase in foreign students from Brazil. The Brazilian government has launched a plan to send 100,000 Brazilian students to get master’s and PhD degrees in foreign universities.

“I’m willing to venture that the Brazil numbers will be even stronger next year,” Blumenthal said. “And Brazil’s government scholarships are encouraging other Brazilian students to come as well.”

My opinion: Latin American governments should be asking themselves whether they shouldn’t follow the steps of China and other rapidly-developing Asian countries by sending more of their students to pursue degrees in some of the world’s best universities.

It’s quite telling that Vietnam, a communist country that is rapidly opening up its economy and raising its living standards, is sending more college students to the United States (16,000) than any Latin American country, including Mexico,

And President Obama should ask himself whether he shouldn’t spend more of his own time promoting his U.S.-Latin America student exchange plan, to get more private sector funding and push for more U.S.-Latin American university partnership deals.

The “100,000 Strong in the Americas” program is the most important — and, sad to say, may be the only — major region-wide initiative that the Obama administration has launched in the Americas. It needs to be jump-started, so it can reach its goal by 2020.

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