Last week in a Chronicle of Higher Education op-ed titled “No Better Export: Higher Education,” Under Secretary of Commerce for International Trade Francisco Sanchez described his experience of leading the first-ever Commerce Department education trade mission to Jakarta, Indonesia, and Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, Vietnam. Recruiters and admissions counselors from 56 U.S. colleges and universities joined him on the trip (which was supported by NAFSA), and it appears to have been a great success. Thousands of students attended education fairs in the three cities, eager for information on studying in the United States. Indonesia and Vietnam were selected for this first-ever mission due to their emerging economies and burgeoning middle classes. The Obama Administration also has pledged to double the number of Indonesian students studying in the United States by 2014.

But wait, why is the Commerce Department interested in promoting international education and exchange? Commerce is interested not only because international students generate foreign policy and educational benefits for the United States, but also because trade in education services ranks 6th among the top U.S. services exports, bigger than research and development services, freight, insurance services, and telecommunications. During the 2009-2010 academic year, NAFSA estimates international students and their dependents contributed approximately $18.8 billion to the U.S. economy. That’s no small change.

Commerce, charged with advancing President Obama’s National Export Initiative (also see “Moving In the Right Direction on Export Controls”), recognizes the financial and commercial benefits of promoting international education and exchange. Says Sanchez:

As students return to their home countries after graduation and become part of the growing middle class, they will have a better understanding and appreciation of American products and services, and will be more likely to become our next customers.

U.S. government-led education missions like this one are not new; under the previous administration, the Departments of State and Education led small delegations of U.S. university presidents to China, Japan, Korea, and India. However, over the past decade, the Commerce Department has taken on a larger role in promoting U.S. higher education as an export, especially as service exports are rising as a share of total U.S. economic activity, representing 30.5% of all exports (up from 20% in 1980).

With the success of the Indonesia and Vietnam mission under their belt, the Commerce Department is already making plans for another education trade mission, to India in October. The Commerce Department should be commended for its leadership in recognizing the benefits of international education and exchange to America and the world.