Making International Learning an Integral Component of Higher Education Will Enhance our Security

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2016 U.S. Presidential Election Issue Brief - September 2015

September 2015

In 2008, the bipartisan leaders of the National Commission on Terrorists Attacks on the United States (the 9/11 Commission) warned that that "ignorance of the world is a national liability." Since then, little has been done to address this challenge to our national security and economic well-being. International learning must be a national priority in order to foster a safer and stronger America.

Policy Recommendations for the 2016 Presidential Candidates

International Learning Contributes to U.S. National Security

International learning helps keep America safe. It enables us to understand and communicate with friends as well as foes around the world, solidifying relationships with the former and often diffusing tensions with the latter. U.S. students who engage in learning abroad become educational ambassadors, combating the anti-American sentiments that arise when we appear imperialistic or disinterested in other cultures, while at the same offering a view of America that is more nuanced than often unflattering stereotypes. Ultimately, cross-cultural understanding makes us better able to persuade, negotiate and partner with others on the common goal of a safer world.

During the Cold War, Congress recognized the need to invest in educating students and scholars who understood and could communicate with the world outside our borders. Since that time, however, the United States has shrunk its commitment to investing in international education programs and failed to support new opportunities to create globally competent Americans, putting us on a path to educational isolationism. If, for example, the Department of Education’s Title VI Program, which provides grants to American universities to establish, strengthen, and operate language and international studies, were funded at the same level it was a half-century ago, its inflation adjusted appropriation would be almost a half a billion dollars. Instead, in 2014 it was funded at $64 million—a trivial sum that fails to recognize the importance of international education in keeping us safe. Likewise, Congress has yet to pass the Simon Study Abroad Act, which would provide a cost-effective, sustainable way to ensure more diverse U.S. undergraduates can study internationally.

International Learning is Vital to Our Economic Security

As important as international learning is to the safety of our country, it is equally important to our economic security. Ninety-five percent of the world’s consumers live outside of the United States. Without cross-cultural literacy, we limit our ability to compete in the global marketplace and will lose out to other countries who put a premium on learning the language and culture of global consumers. Globalization demands that U.S. workers have cross-cultural skills to remain competitive in the 21st century.

International Learning Should be the Rule, Not the Exception

Unfortunately, only about 1 percent of college students study abroad each year, with the majority of those being white women who study a narrow swath of topics in a few countries. Nontraditional students and those with limited financial means are often entirely shut out of the opportunity to study abroad—resulting in a global divide between those who have the skills to embark on careers in an international arena and those who will be left behind. In addition, studies have shown that there is a correlation between students who study abroad and higher grade point averages and degree completion rates, particularly amongst underserved students. We cannot continue to exclude the vast majority of students from a vitally important learning experience and must create policies that increase the number and diversity of students who can study abroad.

Allowing ourselves to remain a country of educational isolationists by failing to make study abroad an integral part of higher education is detrimental to our national security, our economic well-being and our students. We cannot know with certainty where the next global hot spot will arise, which region we will need to partner with to contain an epidemic, or which country will become an economic powerhouse seeking goods from outside its own borders. By nurturing deep understanding of all parts of the world now, we will be better prepared to participate and lead in the future.


Lisa E. Rosenberg, Senior Director of Public Policy - 202.737.3699 x2506;