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Send more U.S. students abroad

We can't be competitive globally if we lack exposure beyond US borders.

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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.

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