Andres Oppenheimer

Andres Oppenheimer: Latin America eyes U.S. colleges

Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto, right, and President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil share a toast during an official ceremony at the National Palace in Mexico City in May. Both leaders have helped to drive major increases in the number of students from Brazil and Mexico studying in the United States.
Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto, right, and President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil share a toast during an official ceremony at the National Palace in Mexico City in May. Both leaders have helped to drive major increases in the number of students from Brazil and Mexico studying in the United States. AP

Here’s some good news for Latin America: after decades of relative academic isolation, the region’s two biggest countries — Brazil and Mexico — are dramatically increasing their numbers of students attending U.S. universities.

New data from the Institute of International Education’s “Open Doors” report show that Latin America is the world’s fastest-growing region in the flow of students to U.S. colleges. While the region is still way behind China and India in its numbers of students at U.S. colleges, it is beginning to catch up.

China alone had 304,000 students in U.S. colleges this year, and India 133,000. By comparison, all Latin America and Caribbean countries together had 86,000 students in U.S. colleges, according to the IIE report.

The numbers of Latin Americans studying in U.S. colleges is beginning to rise, however, thanks to dramatic increases in the numbers of Brazilian and Mexican students. Both Brazil and Mexico have recently started ambitious government scholarship programs to send tens of thousands of students to U.S. and European universities. Their programs are beginning to show results.

Brazil increased its students in U.S. colleges by 78 percent this year, to 23,000 students, on the third year of its government’s Scientific Mobility Program. Under that program, Brazil plans to send 100,000 college graduates to foreign universities, mostly to pursue graduate degrees in science and engineering.

Mexico increased its number of students in U.S. colleges this year by 15 percent, to 17,000, after the recent start of a similar government-sponsored program.

Unfortunately, the numbers for other Latin American countries are not rising as fast. Venezuela has nearly 8,000 students in U.S. universities, many of them fleeing from their country’s political and economic chaos; Colombia has 7,200; Peru and Ecuador 2,800 each; Chile 2,500 and Argentina 2,000, the report shows.

While China and India have much bigger populations than Latin American countries, their per capita percentages of students pursuing degrees in U.S. colleges is much higher than that of Latin American countries. Even Vietnam, a communist-ruled country on the other side of the globe, sent more students to U.S. colleges this year than Mexico.

Among the main reasons for Latin America’s traditionally low numbers of students in U.S. universities is the language barrier. Asians tend to be better prepared to pass English proficiency tests than Latin Americans, U.S. universities say.

Also, from what I observed in trips to China and India, Asian families tend to save more for the education of their children abroad, which in many Asian countries is considered not only a status symbol but also the best way to get a good job. There is a family culture of obsession with education in many Asian countries — perhaps stemming from the Confucius philosophy — something that’s missing in most Latin American countries.

Also, a wave of anti-U.S. sentiment promoted by several Latin American radical leftist governments discouraged many in the region from pursuing a U.S. degree, in sharp contrast with China and Vietnam’s active efforts to train their new generations in the world’s best universities.

The three best-known rankings of the world’s best universities — the London-based Times Higher Education (THE) Supplement ranking; the QS World University Rankings and the Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities — agree that the United States has the world’s best higher education institutions.

My opinion: Latin American countries’ traditional academic isolation has been one of the key reasons why the region lags behind in innovation, science and technology.

There is no one single Latin American university among the world’s 150 best higher education institutions, according to the London-based THE ranking of the world’s best universities. That helps explain why South Korea, for instance, last year registered more than 18,000 patents of new inventions in the U.S. Office of Patents and Trademarks, while all 32 Latin American countries together registered only 836 patents there.

At long last, Latin America’s biggest countries are waking up to the fact that we are living in a knowledge economy, in which science, technology and innovation are much better predictors of countries’ prosperity than having natural resources. That’s good news!

Watch “Oppenheimer Presenta” Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera; e-mail:aoppenheimer@miamiherald.com

Watch “Oppenheimer Presenta” Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español

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