Both presidential candidates have identified the decline of America's international prestige as one of the most serious problems that the next administration will face. But neither have yet come forward with a detailed plan to address it.
One crucial step the United States could take to improve its long-term understanding of and effectiveness in world affairs is to establish study abroad as an integral component of US undergraduate education. Legislation to address this need is languishing in the Senate. Its passage would provide the next president with an important tool for advancing US interests.
Polls have consistently shown that most students enter college wanting and expecting to study abroad. Yet few do. The reason is not only a lack of funding but institutional barriers and curriculum rigidities at colleges and universities.
About 1 percent of those enrolled in all US higher education institutions study abroad for credit in any given academic year. About 10 percent of those graduating from college in any given year will have studied abroad for credit at some point in their undergraduate education. Of those who study abroad, the vast majority does so for a semester or less, nearly half for only a few weeks, and nearly half in only four Western European countries. Study abroad participation is overwhelmingly white and two-thirds female. Minorities and students of limited financial means are underrepresented.
The US cannot conduct itself effectively in a competitive international environment when our most educated citizens lack minimal exposure to, and understanding of, the world beyond US borders. If we lack the ability to see ourselves as others see us – a skill imparted through the direct experience of living and studying abroad – then we diminish our ability to influence and persuade foreign governments and world opinion.
Ignorance of the world is a national liability. The 9/11 Commission wrote: "The United States should rebuild the scholarship, exchange and library programs that reach out to young people and offer them knowledge and hope."
Our intent was not simply to educate Arabs and Muslims about America, but to educate Americans about the world. Americans in vastly greater numbers must devote a substantive portion of their education to gaining an understanding of other countries, regions, languages, and cultures through direct personal experience.
Legislation to secure this vision is one step from enactment in Congress. The Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Foundation Act would set up a small, entrepreneurial government foundation to provide seed money to colleges and universities to support study abroad and make study abroad programs more accessible.
The objectives of this legislation are clear. Within 10 years' time, there should be 1 million undergraduates in study abroad programs, four times the current number. Their profile should reflect the overall undergraduate student population. A significantly greater proportion of them should be studying in developing countries.
This legislation is bipartisan in its origins and sponsorship. A bipartisan commission with members appointed by the joint congressional leadership and the president recommended it.
The commission was established at the behest of the late Sen. Paul Simon, a Democrat, and was chaired by M. Peter McPherson, a Republican. Sens. Dick Durbin (D) of Illinois, and Norm Coleman (R) of Minnesota, the late Rep. Tom Lantos (D) of California and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R) of Fla., have provided strong bipartisan legislative leadership.
The bill has sailed through the congressional process, so far without dissent. It requires only a vote in the full Senate – but it is not clear whether that step will be taken.
The Simon legislation would be a significant step toward creating the educated citizenry that the US requires. We encourage the candidates to support it. To enhance America's understanding and influence in the world, the Senate must act to make study abroad a cornerstone of undergraduate education, and President Bush should then sign the Simon legislation into law.