Prospects for U.S.-Latin American Educational Exchange

By Aaron Bell

Picture3Regional educational exchange has become an important talking point for U.S. administrations in recent years, but data is still lacking to judge it a success or failure.  In 2011, the Obama administration announced the 100,000 Strong in the Americas initiative, intended to promote a north-south multilateral exchange of 100,000 students by 2020.  The State Department casts it as a means for students in the hemisphere to develop the relationships and skills necessary to meet four contemporary challenges: citizen security, economic opportunity, social inclusion, and environmental sustainability.  The organizations tasked with fulfilling the program’s goals include the National Association for Foreign Student Affairs, whose 60-plus years of advocacy on behalf of international education is based on the belief that “international education leads to a more peaceful world.” Whether such lofty aspirations are possible is subject to some debate, but the more-easily measured effect of 100,000 Strong will become clearer when the Institute of International Education releases its report later this year on international study to and from the United States during the past academic year.

Latin American countries as diverse as Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico and El Salvador have student exchange programs of their own, with the U.S. a leading destination.  Mexico sent the most students to the U.S. of any Latin American nation in 2011-12, but its 13,000 students were only the ninth largest source of international students in the U.S.  The most commonly touted example of U.S.-Latin American exchange is cooperation with the Brazil Scientific Mobility Program, part of the Brazilian government’s plan to send 100,000 students abroad by 2015 to study in key science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.  Responding to the weakness of these fields in many Brazilian universities and to the growing demand for highly qualified graduates in high-tech industries, so far over 7,000 Brazilian students have studied at over 200 U.S. universities and interned at 300 companies, with another estimated 3,900 now in such programs.  Cooperation in education exchange is not limited to high-tech fields.  In Washington, for example, Georgetown University administers leadership training to “disadvantaged communities” and “historically underserved populations” from Latin America through the State Department’s Central America Youth Ambassadors Program and the USAID’s Scholarships for Economic Education and Development (SEED) Program.

While governments like Brazil’s have financed their international study programs, the U.S. has asked the private sector to take the lead in expanding pre-existing programs like Fulbright.  Two years ago, 64,000 Latin American students studied in the U.S., compared to 40,000 U.S. students in Latin America, of which one third stayed only for a summer.  If part of the purpose of 100,000 Strong is to improve regional relations through personal contact and exposure to the region’s sociocultural diversity, educational exchanges will need to flow north-south on a more equal footing.  It remains to be seen if the U.S. private sector is willing to meet such a commitment.  There is also the perennial question of whether educational exchange programs enhance economic development and mobility in Latin America or instead contribute to “brain drain.”  The development of high tech industries in places like Brazil offers a more promising future for returning students, but their absence in poorer regions like Central America is a source of concern.  Finally, 100,000 Strong and similar programs should be judged on how they respond to the largest challenges facing universities throughout the Americas: affordability, providing quality education for students of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, and in Latin America specifically, making local universities appealing settings for internationally-trained intellectuals and experts.

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