At a meeting in Germany recently, Secretary of State John Kerry was asked by a former exchange program participant to comment on why fewer Americans seek an exchange experience in Europe than Europeans do in America. Secretary Kerry said, “That’s a really good question…. I need to find out.” He referred to the importance that the Administration attaches to scholarships for study abroad, and he said more scholarships are needed.

Watch the video of the event or read the transcript here.

Secretary Kerry is a strong supporter of international education. In 2001, then-Senator Kerry sponsored Senate Concurrent Resolution 7, calling for the establishment of an international education policy for the United States which would, among other things, strive to “significantly increase participation in study abroad and internships abroad,” and “promote greater diversity of locations, languages, and subjects” involved in study abroad. This resolution passed the Senate unanimously. It was the right policy then, and it’s the right policy now. Regrettably, the United States still has not articulated such a policy. So it’s important that Secretary Kerry know the answer to this question:  Why has this objective of his resolution (not to mention the other objectives) not been accomplished—or even attempted?

Here are the facts. It’s relatively rare for American students to study abroad. The United States sends far fewer students abroad to study than it receives from other countries to study in the United States. The data aren’t terribly reliable, but what they indicate is that in any given year, just over one percent of all students enrolled in U.S. higher education at all levels are studying abroad, with around 10 percent of students graduating in a given year having studied abroad as part of their higher education.

However, of those who do study abroad, the majority do in fact study in Europe. In reality, Europe is over-represented, while relatively few U.S. students study in the developing world, where most of the world’s people live. Thus the challenge is to get more American students studying abroad everywhere, not just Europe. (Find more study abroad data on the NAFSA website).

We know how to make this happen, and it is not expensive. To understand this, Senator Kerry has to re-think his idea that what this takes is more scholarships. That would be expensive. There will never be enough money in the budget to provide study-abroad scholarships to every student who wishes to go abroad. The answer is encompassed in the Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Foundation Act, which Senator Dick Durbin has introduced three times in the Senate. It has been referred to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, of which Senator Kerry was a member and, most recently, chair. Senator Kerry cosponsored it twice, but recused himself when he became chair. This bill would provide challenge or incentive grants to colleges and universities to do more to promote study abroad on their campuses—to create the expectation that students should study abroad, and to make it easier for them to do so. Funds from the grants would pass through to the students, but the schools could only access these funds by committing to address their own barriers and disincentives to study abroad. The universities would distribute the funds to their students in ways designed to maximize study-abroad participation; no student would get more than he or she required, and the funds would not simply replace other sources of funding that the student would otherwise use—a common problem with scholarship programs. There would be no national scholarship competition, which would be hugely expensive to administer. We estimate that we could reach the goal of 1 million U.S. students studying abroad with an annual appropriation of $80 million for 10 years. No individual scholarship program could scale up study abroad to anywhere near this extent, and certainly not at that price.

NAFSA has argued for more than a decade that the United States should make it an objective of national policy that:  50 percent of those who graduate from college should have studied abroad for credit as part of their higher education; they would be representative of the total undergraduate population, both demographically and in terms of majors and the types of institutions they attend; and they would study in diverse locations around the world, with relatively more studying in nontraditional locations outside of Europe. If that could happen, it would transform this country in all kinds of ways that the Obama administration purports to favor. Europe would still receive far more U.S. students than it does today, but the rest of the world would receive something closer to its share. And the United States would benefit from having students returning home with knowledge of all parts of the world that are important to America.

When Senator Durbin re-introduces the bill this year, the administration should support it, and Secretary Kerry should work with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to pass it and implement it.