Andres Oppenheimer

Andres Oppenheimer: U.S. colleges seeing more Latin Americans

Latin American programs to send more students to U.S. universities are beginning to bear fruit, even if the number of Latin American students in U.S. higher education institutions remains way behind those of China, India, South Korea and even Vietnam.

Brazil, whose left-of-center government launched a program to send 100,000 undergraduate students to foreign universities three years ago, was one of the countries that showed the biggest increase among foreign students at U.S. colleges this year, according to a new study by the New York-based Institute of International Education.

According to the IIE’s study of international students in U.S. higher education schools, titled “Open Doors,” there was a 22.2 percent increase in the number of Brazilian students in U.S. colleges this year. Brazil is now in 10th place among the countries with the largest number of students in U.S. colleges, one place behind Mexico.

The rapid increase of the number of Brazilians studying in the United States is a direct result of the Brazilian government’s “Science without Borders” program, which aims at sending 100,000 students to the world’s best universities to study science and engineering, under the premise that it is imperative that they get an international education. There are currently 13,300 Brazilian students in U.S. universities, the study shows.

Brazil has followed the steps of Chile, which almost a decade ago launched a similar study abroad scholarship program. Mexico earlier this year launched its “Proyecta 100,000” plan to dramatically increase its number of students in U.S. colleges from today’s 14,800 to 100,000 over the next four years.

Still, the number of Latin American students in U.S. universities continues to pale when compared to that of Asian students.

There are 274,000 students from China in U.S. universities, 103,000 from India, 68,000 from South Korea, 54,000 from Saudi Arabia, 28,300 from Canada, 21,300 from Taiwan, 19,300 from Japan and 16,600 from Vietnam, according to the new “Open Doors” figures.

Mexico and Brazil rank immediately below Vietnam, and most other Latin American countries far below them. There are 7,100 students from Colombia in U.S. colleges, 7,000 from Venezuela, 2,600 from Peru, 2,500 from Ecuador, 2,400 from Chile, and 1,900 from Argentina, the study shows.

Still, IIE officials say they are confident that the number of Latin American students doing part of their studies or pursuing degrees in U.S. colleges will increase at a much faster pace over the next few years.

They expect the numbers to rise because of Brazil and Mexico’s study abroad programs, and because of President Barack Obama’s “100,000 Strong in the Americas” program, which aims to increase the flow of students from Latin America to U.S. universities, and of U.S. students to Latin America, to 100,000 in each direction by 2020.

“We are only beginning to see the impact of the Brazil science mobility program,” says Allan E. Goodman, IIE’s president.

While the Open Doors study shows an overall 8.2 percent increase in the number of Latin American students in U.S. colleges this year, there was only a 1.8 percent increase in the number of U.S. students pursuing college studies in Latin America.

While 53 percent of U.S. youths in study abroad programs chose European countries such as Britain and France, only 16 percent chose Latin American countries this year. According to Goodman, the flow of U.S. students to Latin America will grow soon, as more Latin American students are coming to the United States and universities from both sides sign more student exchange agreements.

My opinion: One of the biggest hurdles for a larger increase in the number of Latin American students in U.S. universities is fear of a “brain drain.” Some Latin American countries have not yet realized that, in today’s globalized world, the very concept of “brain drain” has become outdated.

China, India, South Korea and other countries that have sent tens of thousands of students to U.S. universities in recent decades have benefited enormously from their student diasporas. Some of their graduates in U.S. universities have returned home as world-class academics or highly trained professionals, while others who have stayed in the United States are helping their home countries as visiting professors, or as investors.

Fortunately, Brazil, Chile and most recently Mexico have realized that the old concept of “brain drain” has been replaced by that of “brain circulation.” They are beginning to break away from decades of academic isolation. Others may soon join them, and Latin America may benefit from the “brain circulation” as much as Asian countries have done in recent years.