President Obama’s "Race to the Top" in Higher Education Can’t Be Won Without International Education

March 08, 2012

By Victor C Johnson

A generation ago, educators worried about a looming “digital divide”: that students with access to computers and online education would be primed for success in the digital world, while those lacking such access would be left out. This gave rise to the effort to make computers available in every classroom, and to make Internet access widely available across the United States.

Today we face what might be called a “global divide”: the divide between those who will have access to a global education and will be primed for success in the “flat” world, and those who will continue to be educated under the last century’s models. The Department of Education has an essential role in ensuring that this divide is breached—that we will educate all of our students for the global age.

Secretary Duncan’s 2010 speech at the Council on Foreign Relations demonstrated that he understands this quite clearly. He wove together three insights that are essential to the international education agenda: first, that the global context is characterized by the twin trends of “increased international competition” and “increased international cooperation”; second, that these trends help inform the administration’s drive to transform education in America (which he referred to as “our generation’s ‘moonshot’”); and third, that “our ability to compete and collaborate on the world stage” requires that, as part of education reform, we “increase the foreign language fluency and cultural awareness of all our students" (emphasis added).

Unfortunately, one looks in vain in the Education Department’s 2013 budget for any hint that making American college education truly global is part of its agenda – this despite the very welcome development, reflected in the budget, that the department has recognized its responsibility for higher education and has jumped into the ring with plans to institute a form of "Race to the Top" for higher education. The disconnect here is that it is simply impossible to achieve Secretary Duncan’s vision, or President Obama’s stated objective in his “Blueprint for Keeping College Affordable and Within Reach for All Americans” that college will produce “a workforce prepared for the jobs of the 21st century,” without embedding international education in the strategy.

That vision is transformational. To achieve it will require breaking free of traditional programmatic thinking, because it cannot be accomplished under current programs. It will require the mainstreaming of global and cross-cultural learning on all campuses across the higher education spectrum; making study abroad the norm, rather than the exception; and ensuring that foreign language instruction actually produces graduates who can effectively communicate in a foreign language.

The good news is that there is a model for advancing that vision, and it is ready for the administration to take off the shelf and plug into its higher education agenda and policies. Even better, the model is grounded in the goals the administration articulates in its proposed $55-million “First in the World” competition, which focuses on college completion rates, learning outcomes, and education productivity, with a particular emphasis on minority and low-income students.

The international-education corollary of that agenda is the Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Act, which would establish a modest program of challenge grants to incentivize colleges and universities to make study abroad an integral part of higher education. The Simon Act creates a model for promoting educational innovation and reform leading toward the internationalization of higher education—a model which predates, but looks a lot like, the "Race to the Top" model that Secretary Duncan created. Data increasingly suggest that study abroad improves college completion rates, learning outcomes, and education productivity. The Simon model, as articulated in legislation previously introduced by Senator Dick Durbin, would require innovation and cost control, and would by definition make study abroad available to minority-serving institutions and low-income students. The Simon model was developed to accomplish virtually all of the buzz words in the “First in the World” description.

The reality is that American higher education cannot be first in the world and prepare students for the 21st century unless the education it provides is international education. In today’s world, a country cannot succeed in global competitiveness in the absence of a citizenry equipped with global skills and knowledge. The administration understands this. Addressing this need would not be difficult to do, and the Simon model would get us a long way toward doing it. The money is in the president’s budget. If this administration doesn’t do it, who will?


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