American students need to be encouraged to seek semester-abroad programs in strategically important countries.
The new school year is upon us. For thousands of higher-education students, it will mean the beginning of a study-abroad program in which they become exposed to a different society and culture. This is a good thing.
The competition from students in China, India the European Union and others requires that the United States start to produce more and better-educated graduates who understand and are capable of operating in the global economy.
According to the Institute of International Education (IIE) more students are taking advantage of the various programs offered to study abroad. The institute's 2007 report shows that the number of students who received credit for study abroad is about 220,000. However, with higher-education enrollment now above 14 million, it's obvious that more could be done.
Recently, the Lincoln Commission noted how critical it is to the future of U.S. competitiveness and national security that an ambitious goal be set to send at least 1 million U.S. students abroad each year. While I agree with that goal, there needs to be more than just an increase in numbers. A major increase in the quality of the experiences and the diversity of locations also needs to be explored.
The IIE survey shows some interesting trends. For example, the institute divides the current programs into three classifications: short-term (fewer than eight weeks), mid-term (a full semester) and long-term (a year or more). The largest growth is in the area of short-term programs. In 2005, 56 percent of all U.S. students who studied abroad chose summer school or the January term (one month). The semester-abroad model attracted 38 percent of students while the full academic year enrolled fewer than 6 percent (down from 18 percent in 1985).
This is not a favorable trend.
While the short programs are better than nothing, in my view the exposure is too brief to provide a good-quality experience for the money. The emphasis should be on the semester abroad, where there is at least some chance for language exposure and serious intercultural interchange.
The other major flaw in the study-abroad programs centers around where U.S. students study.
The top destination for U.S. students in 1985 was the United Kingdom. In 2004 it was still the United Kingdom. While London is a wonderful place to visit, I wonder how much of a challenge it presents for a student trying to expand his or her international experience.
China is gaining
Some improvements have occurred in destination. In 1985 China was No. 10 on the list; in 2004 it was No. 8, and has grown dramatically over the last four years.
But other strategically important parts of the world see few U.S. students. In 2007, fewer than 5 percent of students studying abroad were doing so in the Middle East or North Africa, even though there are several fine U.S.-founded schools such as the American University of Cairo, the American University of Beirut and the Lebanese American University.
Locally, one of the bright spots in the 2006 report focuses on the number of schools that awarded academic credit for studying abroad to at least 1,000 of their students annually. While New York University led the large institutions with 2,611 students, the University of Minnesota ranked fifth with 1,836.
Smaller schools often send a higher proportion of their students abroad than do large schools. In 2006, the top 10 schools sending more than 80 percent of their students abroad included three in Minnesota: St. John's University; the College of St. Benedict and St. Olaf College.
As a result of globalization, the United States has experienced increased competition -- not only from the traditional economic powerhouses such as Japan and the European Union, but now China, India, Brazil and many other developing economies. During the recent G8 meetings in Japan, it was suggested that the G8 should now be the G20 and include the newest competitors.
While the United States may have lost its lead in manufacturing and services, it still has a claim to being the world's largest knowledge economy. But this will not continue automatically.
In order to keep an edge in the global economy, the United States will have to produce graduates with a solid foundation in international relations, intercultural communications skills and a geopolitical view of the world.
This cannot be done just by increasing the numbers of students who study abroad, nor can it with a few weeks in a culture that offers little challenge to the student and little benefit to the United States.
Future programs should encourage students to take at least a semester program and to go to countries that offer a strategic importance to the United States and an academic challenge to the student's abilities.