Why not study in Latin America?

Here is a plan that could do wonders to U.S. competitiveness in global markets and improve ties with Latin America. The plan, send more U.S. students to study abroad.

The idea is in a bill presented by Sens. Dick Durbin and Roger Wicker, which went almost unnoticed amid the legislative debate over Obama’s budget request. Under the bill, the U.S. would give grants to universities to make it easier to study abroad.

‘I’m afraid we are far behind,’ Durbin said in a interview. ‘More and more students from areas like Asia are coming to the United States. Sadly, very few U.S. students are moving in the other direction.’

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, only 0.3 percent of U.S. college students study abroad. Comparatively, 6.2 percent of Norwegian students, 2.5 percent of French students and two percent of Chinese students study abroad.

‘Americans are uninformed about the world, compared to people in other countries,’ said Victor C. Johnson, a senior advisor to the Association of International Educators. ‘We believe that it’s crucial for American students to have international experiences as part of their education.’

A 2006 National Geographic survey found that 63 percent of young Americans couldn’t locate Iraq on a map, 70 percent could not find Israel, and 54 percent were unaware that Sudan is in Africa.

Under the bill, the U.S would quadruple the number of college students who study abroad.

The U.S. government would create a Study Abroad Foundation, which would give international study grants to universities that comply with certain conditions.

While 57 percent of U.S. students who study abroad choose Europe, only 15 percent go to Latin America.

The proposed foundation would steer U.S. students to developing countries by giving grants that set up programs in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Will the bill pass? Durbin said a similar bill passed the House last year, but died in the Senate. ‘Now that we have a large (Democratic) majority in the Senate, the chances are better,’ Durbin said.

While Latin American countries are among the leading U.S. trading partners, and a major destination of U.S. investments, only 4.2 percent of U.S. students spend time studying in Mexico, 2.4 percent in Costa Rica, 1.6 in Argentina, and 1.3 in Chile and Ecuador.

That’s a sad situation because people’s experiences in college mark their own future. It’s OK to have U.S. students going to London, but it’s increasingly important to get them to Mexico City.