Proposal Seeks to Improve America’s Image Abroad

Legislation would lessen financial barriers that prevent low-income, minority students from participating in foreign exchange programs.

Minority-serving institutions (MSI) and members of Congress are making a final push for legislation to draw more low-income and minority students into foreign exchange programs and bring more students from developing countries to the United States.

“There is an urgent need to improve America’s image abroad,” says Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, D-Texas, chairman of the House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Higher Education, Lifelong Learning and Competitiveness. One goal of the Uniting Students in America proposal is to increase participation in study abroad programs to at least 1 million college students per year, a four-fold increase from the current level of 223,000.

The proposal would focus on this goal by creating a new U.S. government-sanctioned corporation that would raise private sector funds and offer competitive grants to universities, consortiums and individuals. The foundation would be named for former Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill., a champion of higher education who died in 2003.

“There are a variety of reasons why many college students don’t study abroad, but lack of finances is one of the major challenges,” says Dr. William DeLauder, president emeritus of Delaware State University, a historically Black institution.

Along with the potential to raise private funds, the Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Foundation Act would also authorize $80 million in federal funds for study abroad and international programs.

The goal is to “make study abroad a commonplace rather than exceptional part of college education for American students,” a summary of the plan states. Another objective is to bring participation in study abroad programs more in line with the demographic composition of higher education. As a result, it seeks to recruit more students from community colleges, minority-serving institutions and colleges serving large numbers of low-income and first-generation students.

The legislation also seeks to expand the reach of study abroad programs so that more U.S. students would attend programs in more nontraditional destinations such as developing countries.

Open Doors data, published by the Institute of International Education, do show that some U.S. students already are studying at relatively nontraditional destinations. Study in the Middle East was up 31 percent in 2007, while Africa experienced a 19 percent gain.

Despite such gains, however, overall numbers remain small. Africa was the destination of only 4 percent of study abroad students in 2007, and only 1 percent studied in the Middle East.

Another key component of the House bill is to increase the number of students from developing countries who come to study in the United States.

Financial aid is critical for these students, “who may not otherwise be able to afford to study abroad,” DeLauder says.

Overall, nearly 600,000 international students enrolled at U.S. colleges and universities in the 2006-07 year, according to Open Doors. Yet more than half, or 344,495 students, came from Asia. By comparison, only about 35,000 came from Africa, while the Middle East and Central America had even lower representation.

Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU), Hispanic-serving institutions (HSI) and other postsecondary institutions could receive up to $30,000 a year for each needy international student to cover his or her tuition, room and board, travel and living expenses. But DeLauder says this amount may not cover all actual expenses, particularly travel, and that HBCUs and small colleges may be unable to pick up the difference. Nonetheless, lawmakers are targeting major needs through this bill, a representative from an HSI said in a House hearing in mid June.

“The potential of this program is huge, particularly in its value of dispelling negative attitudes towards the United States that currently exist in some regions of the world,” said Philip Clay, director of international admissions at the University of Texas-Pan American. “These students return to their home countries, not as adversaries, but as advocates for America.”

The bill has cleared the House of Representatives, while a similar version of the bill has gained approval in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Sponsors are hoping for final approval before Congress adjourns for the November presidential election.

“Most of U.S. higher education considers the Simon bill a top priority,” DeLauder says.

The legislation also can provide an important boost to MSIs, Hinojosa adds. “This is a win-win for the international students and for our institutions.”

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