The frequent drumbeat of “no-new-spending” and “pay-down-the-debt” in Washington can be puzzling for people who know instinctively that even when times are tough, you have to keep investing in the things that matter. While there is much energy being spent on asking how we can spend less, perhaps a better question to ask is: How do we spend smarter? David Brooks, writing recently in the New York Times, suggests looking at the success of government not in terms of how big or small it is, but in what it helps America to achieve. “Does a given policy arouse energy, foster skills, spur social mobility and help people transform their lives?” he asks.

Viewed in this frame, it becomes somewhat easier to prioritize. No serious person would suggest, no matter how tough times get, that we stop educating our kids. But what does this mean in today’s world? A recent NAFSA public opinion poll tells us what the American public thinks it means: they told us that a global education – that is, learning a foreign language, learning about the world, studying abroad – are going to be crucial elements in handing a competitive advantage to the next generation of workers and leaders in our country. Even as Americans deal with well-founded worries over job losses, declines in home values, the closing of businesses, and all-out budget crises in some communities and states, they know that the days of thinking of the United States as separated from the rest of the world by oceans or plane rides are over, and they know this demands a different set of skills. The latest areas of projected consumer growth are outside the United States. The profits of many companies depend on foreign markets. Cutting-edge research looks for the best brains in the world, wherever they may be. To be competitive, employers are globally sourcing their work. This is the world our young people are growing up in. In today’s world, the global economy is often just down the street.

The good news is that the United States has many assets in taking on this challenge and educating our children to rise to meet it. Many of the world’s best colleges and universities are here in this country. Though immigration is a contentious political issue, America continues to be a magnet for foreign scientists, researchers, teachers, and businesspeople, and their presence benefits all of us – companies started by immigrants are net job-creators; innovation fuels the economy. Our students are clamoring for more opportunities to study and serve in countries around the world. And the American public is committed to international education as a priority. Seventy-five percent of those we polled said they agree that “unless our colleges and universities do a better job of teaching our students about the world, our children and grandchildren will not be prepared to compete in the global economy.” Nearly two-thirds agreed that without foreign-language skills, young people will be at a “competitive disadvantage in their careers.” And the majority of survey respondents consider study abroad a “vital component of an education that prepares [students] for success in the global workplace” and believe international education is “very or moderately essential to the educational experience” of American students.

Perhaps best of all given the current environment, international education need not be expensive. In fact, much of it pays for itself. Some schools have been trailblazers in figuring out how to make study abroad cost about as much for students as staying on campus would (excepting travel costs); others are stretching their dollars further by setting up programs in less expensive destinations outside Western Europe – and stretching the minds of students in the process, to America’s great benefit. Meanwhile, the international students on campus are fueling school budgets, often paying full out-of-state freight and bringing their money with them from home. Nationwide, international students spent $18 billion in the United States last year – yes, that’s $18 billion. They also contribute to research, teach our students, and, through their demand for courses in math and science, make it possible for schools to offer more courses in more fields. The offices that support these programs more than pay for themselves – and they deserve robust support as part of what makes it possible for schools to meet their educational mission of preparing students for life and leadership in the world.

Government has role to play as well. Certainly we must continue to invest in things like educational exchanges. But government’s role is by and large not to pay the bills, but to do something equally crucial: to set out a vision and make it possible through smart, proactive policy. Study abroad is a good example. A modest amount of federal seed money can leverage enormous change at our colleges and universities and foster approaches that make study abroad cost-effective. To do it we have to move beyond direct scholarships toward a partnership between government and institutions to address the campus-level barriers that too often prevent more study abroad. Government – especially Congress – needs to hear from the American public that this matters to them and deserves their attention in these distracting times.

To put it starkly, we face today the prospect of what might be called a “global divide,” between those students who will graduate from college with global literacy and those who will not. For those students who do not have the advantage of a global education, the consequences of this divide could be as profound as those that were feared for the digital divide. If government and educational leaders understand this – as Americans already do – they will do everything they can to continue to support and grow international education.