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An Incalculable Loss

An Incalculable Loss 
Lack of a coherent U.S. policy on international education will have serious consequences at home and abroad
By Karen Jenkins

Bessie Coleman wanted to be a pilot. But she was turned down by every flight school in America because she was Black and female. So the manicurist from Chicago saved her hard-earned money, learned French, obtained a passport and headed to France to pursue her dream.
Coleman received her pilot’s license from the International Aeronautical Federation in Paris in 1921, becoming the first licensed African-American female aviator.

It was a remarkable achievement, in part because she had never been outside of the United States before going to France. Coleman should serve as a role model for all of us. She is a fitting example of the value and importance of international education.

The United States has celebrated International Education Week every November for the past four years — part of a joint initiative of the U.S. Departments of State and Education to make international education integral to U.S. higher education. However, the evidence is compelling that the effort has faltered. The enrollment of foreign students and scholars is declining, and U.S. students of all ages continue to lack language competency and a deep understanding of other people and cultures. This comes at a time when the United States is widely considered the world’s lone superpower. America’s economy, military dominance and pervasive pop culture have the power to affect the lives of citizens around the globe. That said, the international education statistics for the 2004-2005 academic year should alarm all educators.

For decades, the United States has been considered the destination of choice for foreign scholars. Historically, international students have returned to their home countries prepared to become future leaders.

Regardless where they return to, their intimate understanding of the people, history and culture of America has helped them maintain goodwill towards this country. That has changed since Sept. 11, however. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, the government has imposed restrictive visa procedures that require personal interviews with a foreign service officer. That often means a long trip to a U.S. embassy or consulate and a fee that must be paid in U.S. dollars. Not only is the fee a burden for poorer students, the new restrictions have foreign students worried that if they return home for a visit, they may not be allowed back into the country to continue their education. 

Canada, which recently introduced a national policy to attract foreign students, has experienced a 7 percent enrollment increase. Australia and the United Kingdom have seen similar increases. The numbers represent students who want to study in English but are choosing not to come to the United States. The loss is economic — the U.S. Department of Commerce reports that foreign students infuse more than $13 billion into the country’s economy — but there is also the incalculable loss of cultural and academic diversity on our campuses, not to mention friendships that strengthen the long-term security of the nation.

Complementing the numbers of international students coming into the United States have been  American students who study abroad. While the absolute number of students who studied abroad in the 2004-2005 academic year increased to approximately 180,000, they account for only 1 percent of the entire U.S. student population. In addition, the students who study abroad and represent U.S. higher education at foreign universities around the world are predominately White, accounting for 83 percent of the total.

Just as disappointing, the majority of students who study abroad, 68 percent, continue to choose Western Europe as their destination. Students are not studying in large numbers in Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia, Latin America or the Middle East, where the need for understanding and knowledge is the greatest. These are the regions of the world that are having a profound effect on U.S. foreign policy. International Education Week has come and gone, but this should be a time for all educational institutions to commit to at least one, if not all, of the following initiatives:

– Increase exchanges so every campus benefits from the presence of international students and the long-term security of the nation is enhanced;  

– Require foreign language competency for all undergraduates; and  

– Increase study abroad enrollment quickly and dramatically. 

When the first International Education Week was proclaimed in 2000, the goal was to send 20 percent of all undergraduates abroad by 2010 and 50 percent by 2040. With less than 1 percent of U.S. undergraduates currently studying abroad, reaching the goal of 20 percent by 2010 is nearly impossible. The lack of a coherent U.S. policy that ties international education to national priorities means that our students will be poorly prepared to function in the wider world.

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