In his State of the Union Address last night, President Obama spoke about the many challenging issues confronting the American people, and it was clear that the economy was at the top of his list.  He spoke of the need to maintain our competitiveness, encourage innovation, and invest in the skills and education of Americans. On competing in the global economy, President Obama said:

…Washington has been telling us to wait for decades, even as the problems have grown worse.  Meanwhile, China’s not waiting to revamp its economy.  Germany’s not waiting.  India’s not waiting.  These nations aren’t standing still…They’re putting more emphasis on math and science.  They’re rebuilding their infrastructure.  They are making serious investments in clean energy because they want those jobs… As hard as it may be, as uncomfortable and contentious as the debates may be, it’s time to get serious about fixing the problems that are hampering our growth.

Another thing these countries are doing is attracting talented people from around the world, recognizing that in a global economy, they can’t get the job done alone. Foreign talent contributes to innovation and technology research, spurs new ideas and new businesses, and creates jobs.   The economic future of the United States is tied to effective immigration and visa reform that opens our doors to that talent.  President Obama understands this.  At his recent jobs summit at the White House, he said:

One of the great things about this country is we get the best and the brightest talent to study here, and once they study here they start enjoying the intellectual freedom and the entrepreneurship, and they decide to stay, and they start new businesses.  And suddenly you’ve got a whole new generation of folks who are creating Intel or other extraordinary businesses.  If those students start seeing a closed door, then we are losing what is one of  our greatest  competitive advantages, and that’s something that I think we’re committed to doing.

Attracting globally mobile talent often begins with our colleges and universities.  Despite the economic downturn, international students and their families spent $17.6 billion in the United States during the 2008-2009 academic year, according to a study by NAFSA.  Beyond these direct financial contributions, international students and scholars bring global perspectives to our classrooms, teach our students at our universities and colleges, and enhance innovation in our research facilities, labs, and businesses.

Investing in education and sending more American students abroad will further help our long-term economic growth.  Students who study or volunteer abroad and learn foreign languages are far better prepared for the demands of the 21st century.  Cross-cultural competency and global experience are now widely recognized as essential skills in the job market and the keys to innovation and competitiveness in the global economy, yet today only 1 percent of American college students participate in study abroad programs each year.  Congress and the president can take a step forward in investing more in the global competency of our students by passing the Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Act.

International education has a clear role in enhancing America’s competitiveness and long-term economic growth.