In what may be good news for the future of the United States ties with the rest of the world, the number of Americans studying abroad has more than doubled in the past decade, and is reaching a new record this year.
According to a just-released study by the Institute of International Education, a U.S. nonprofit group that promotes student exchanges, the number of U.S. college students who studied abroad reached 206,000 this year, up from 83,000 a decade ago and 45,000 two decades ago.
I have to confess that my first reaction when reading these figures was to say, "Great!" They suggest that the United States may be gradually breaking away from being an inward-looking country, where nearly 80 percent of the people don't have a passport, and where - according to a recent National Geographic poll - 63 percent of young people can't find Iraq on a map, and 69 percent can't find China.
I was further encouraged when I talked to IIE President Allan E. Goodman, and asked him whether the new figures of U.S. students abroad will have an impact in U.S. foreign policy in coming decades.
"It will have a dramatic impact on the way Americans think about the world, and in the way the world thinks about us," Goodman told me, noting that most Americans never traveled abroad or follow international news. "I expect study abroad numbers will continue to increase in coming years."
Young Americans are willing to study abroad because they realize that, in a global economy, they will have a much better chance of getting a job if they can put the words "China" or "Brazil" on their resume, IIE officials say. And U.S. universities, noting that their European counterparts have already made it mandatory to study abroad or speak at least one foreign language, don't want to be left behind.
At least two U.S. higher education institutions, Worcester Polytechnic in Massachusetts and Goucher College in Maryland have made it mandatory for most of their students to study abroad. And Harvard University has announced that it will make foreign studies more easily available to its students.
But when I looked at which countries are the favorite destinations of U.S. students abroad, I realized that, unfortunately, only a small number of future U.S. business and political leaders are spending part of their formative years in the developing world.
More than 60 percent of U.S. students go to Europe; only 14 percent go to Latin America; 8 percent to Asia; and 7 percent to Oceania.
The most popular destination is Britain, with 32,000 U.S. students, followed by Italy, Spain and France. Mexico ranks sixth, with 9,200 U.S. students; Costa Rica 10th, with 4,800; Chile 16th, with 2,400; and Argentina 18th and Brazil 19th, with about 2,000 U.S. students each.
When it comes to picking where to study overseas, it's partly the language, partly the fun, and partly the marketing. While Britain, Italy and France offer English-language classes that allow U.S. students to claim credits at their universities back home, or some universities have campuses in Europe, most Latin American universities are not yet in the game.
"The reality is that most American students are mono-lingual," says Peggy Blumenthal, an IIE vice president. "The reason so many more U.S. students go to Mexico than to other Latin American countries is that Mexican universities such as the Tecnologico de Monterrey offer strong programs for U.S. students that are taught in English."
My opinion: Much like I wrote a few weeks ago that both Latin America and the United States could greatly benefit from allowing some of the more than 100 million Americans who will retire over the next three decades to seek health care in top Latin American hospitals, countries in the region could benefit from drawing a larger slice of the hundreds of thousands of U.S. students who will spend time abroad during their college years.
Granted, headlines of political violence and street violence may discourage U.S. parents from sending their children to some Latin American countries. But then, Europe has had its share of terrorist bombings recently.
With its benign climates, relatively cheap prices and great lifestyle, Latin America could become a much larger destination for U.S. students. And that would not only be an economic plus for the region, but would help both sides understand each other better.