In a troublesome sign for the long-term future of U.S.-Latin American ties, students from India, China, South Korea and other Asian countries are enrolling at record numbers in U.S. universities, while the number of Latin American and Caribbean students is declining.
The new figures from Open Doors, an annual survey by the New York-based Institute of International Education, show that India alone has more undergraduate and graduate students on U.S. campuses than all 32 Latin American and Caribbean countries combined.
The study shows that Asian countries have 325,000 students in U.S. colleges, including 80,000 from India, 63,000 from China, 53,000 from South Korea and 42,000 from Japan.
By comparison, all Latin American and Caribbean countries together have 68,000 students in U.S. colleges, including 13,000 from Mexico, 7,500 from Colombia, 7,300 from Brazil, 3,600 from Peru and 3,300 from Argentina and Chile, respectively.
Granted, Asian countries have much bigger populations. But while the number of Asian students in U.S. colleges rose by 0.3 percent this year, the number of Latin American and Caribbean students has dropped by 2.6 percent, the study shows. Over the past 10 years, while the number of Indian students on U.S. campuses soared by 140 percent, the number of Mexican and Brazilian students rose by only 45 percent, respectively.
The trend does not bode well for the long-term future of U.S.-Latin American ties, because foreign students tend to become part of their nations' business, political or academic elites, experts say. In addition, it's a bad sign for Latin American countries' own future ability to compete with other emerging economies, they say.
"This is something that should trouble Latin America," IIE Latin America's director, Alan Adelman, told me in a telephone interview from Mexico City. "If Latin America is going to compete in the more sophisticated industries, it needs to produce more foreign-trained Ph.D.s in areas that are not available locally."
Indeed, judging from two recent rankings of the world's best universities - one done by The Times of London's Higher Educational Supplement and the other by the University of Shanghai - there is little question that U.S. universities are by far the most advanced in the world.
The Times' ranking of the world's 200 best universities is topped by Harvard, and seven out of its top 10 universities are in the United States. Its best-ranked Latin American university, Mexico's National Autonomous University, is ranked 95th, way below several universities from China, India and other emerging countries.
The Shanghai ranking of the world's best 500 universities is also topped by Harvard, and has eight U.S. universities among its 10 best ranked. There is not one single Latin American university among the first 100 on the list.
There is also a big difference in the profile of Asian and Latin American students, the IIE figures show. While an overwhelming percentage of the Indian, Chinese and other Asian students in U.S. universities are graduate students, only about 35 percent of Latin American students are in that category.
"That's more bad news for Latin America, because graduate students are the ones that can take the most advantage of U.S. institutions' state of-the-art research and development facilities," Adelman says.
Are Latin American countries sending relatively fewer students because of their economic woes? Are Asian countries sending more students because they receive government scholarships?
Negative in both cases.
In fact, Latin America countries have enjoyed their biggest economic growth in two decades over the past two years.
And, judging from what I heard from Chinese education officials in a visit to Beijing earlier this year, less than 5 percent of Chinese students in U.S. universities receive government financial support.
The high number of Indian and Chinese graduate students in U.S. universities seems mostly due to a cultural phenomenon: Asian families are saving more for their children's education and are more willing to spend it on graduate studies abroad.
My conclusion: The decline in Latin American and Caribbean students should not only worry Washington, but Latin America itself.
It's a further sign that Asia is betting heavily on education as a way to increase competitiveness and reduce poverty, while much of Latin America is distracted with empty ideological debates.
- Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.