Commentary: Send more U.S. students abroad

Here is a plan that could do wonders to increase U.S. competitiveness in global markets and improve long-term ties with Latin America – send one million U.S. college students a year to study abroad, especially in developing countries.

The idea is contained in a bill presented last week in Congress by Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Roger Wicker, R-Miss., which went almost unnoticed in the media amid the legislative debate over the Obama administration's budget request. Under the bill, the U.S. government would give grants to U.S. universities to make it easier for students to spend part of their college years studying abroad.

While much of the world's population growth and economic expansion in coming decades will take place in China, India and Latin America, only a tiny fraction of U.S. college students are getting a global education. What's more, most of them are going to Great Britain, Italy and Spain, supporters of the bill say.

If the United States wants to remain competitive, and secure, this has to change, they say.

"I'm afraid we are far behind," Sen. Durbin told me in a telephone interview. "More and more students from areas like Asia are coming to the United States. Sadly, very few U.S. students are moving in the other direction."

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), only 0.3 percent of U.S. college students study abroad. Comparatively, 6.2 percent of Norwegian college students, 2.5 percent of French students and 2 percent of Chinese students study abroad, the UNESCO figures show.

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