Lee Hamilton, director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, co-chair of the 9/11 Commission, and a former U.S. Congressman, makes a powerful case for investment in and advancement of international education in “Exploit soft power of colleges” published yesterday by The Indianapolis Star. Hamilton writes:

To remain economically competitive and culturally vibrant in the 21st century, we need to have the world's best educated work force. International education will strengthen our country and enhance the quality of our lives.

NAFSA couldn’t agree more. International education has a clear role in enhancing America’s competitiveness and long-term economic growth. Students who study or volunteer abroad and learn foreign languages are far better prepared to compete in the job market, as cross-cultural competency and global experience are now widely recognized as essential skills 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, and, as Hamilton points out, minorities and students of limited financial means are underrepresented. Hamilton argues that we need to expand educational exchanges, and he is a strong supporter of the Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Act, which aims to send one million American college students abroad annually in ten years time. The Simon Act will encourage diversity in student participation as well as locations of study abroad, particularly in developing countries.

While study abroad is vital to helping our graduates succeed in the global economy, we must also give attention to international students on American campuses. International students contributed a significant $17.6 billion to our national economy in the 2008-2009 academic year. But talented students have an increasing number of options around the world – in order for American higher education institutions to be able to compete, immigration law and visa policy must change. Hamilton says that we need to streamline the visa application process in order to attract more foreign students – something NAFSA has called for, among other policy recommendations, to make the United States more attractive to foreign students and scholars.

Hamilton makes a compelling case for the important role of international education in public diplomacy, writing:

Look no further than the roster for last week's Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, a nearly unprecedented gathering of world leaders to discuss the most important issue in international security: nuclear proliferation.

Among those in attendance were Mexican President Felipé Calderón, Chilean President Sebastian Piñeira, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon. All are products of American universities whose familiarity with the United States is an asset to their countries and ours.

Before these individuals were world leaders, they were international students. Generations of American foreign-policy leaders like Lee Hamilton have pointed to educational exchanges as one of our most successful foreign policy tools, the most proven and effective way for the United States to build a foundation for dialogue and partnership with the rest of the world. This is why NAFSA stands with him in our conviction that international education, by its nature, is fundamental to fostering peace, security, and well-being. We appreciate his leadership in bringing these issues to the forefront of our public debate about issues like immigration reform and the education of our own students – these are very important matters for the country.