Earlier this year Senator Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) along with Senate colleagues Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced the Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Program Act (S. 1198). Named after the late senator from Illinois who was a persuasive advocate for the importance of international education to economic growth and national security, the bill is similar to legislation that has passed the House of Representatives in previous sessions with considerable bipartisan support.
Higher education leaders almost unanimously express support for study abroad, citing its contributions to a well-rounded education, increased cultural awareness, and enhanced language skills. In addition, study abroad often brings with it experiences and skills that translate into better job prospects and higher salaries for participants.
Despite all these advantages, the rate at which America’s college students pursue study abroad opportunities remains limited in several ways. In addition to paltry participation overall, it has too often been more of a boutique enrichment for privileged students than a basic educational experience available to a range of students. Consider that:
- Annually, only 300,000-350,000 U.S. students, or fewer than 2% of all those enrolled in college, study abroad.
- Of this number, African American and Hispanic students take part at far lower rates than their overall representation among college students.
- Most study abroad takes place in Europe. A mere five European destinations – the U.K., Spain, France, Germany and Italy – account for 40% of all U.S. students studying abroad.
- Over the past five years, the percentage of students selecting such important regions as Asia, Africa and Latin American for their study-abroad experiences has decreased.
The Paul Simon Act would create a competitive grant program in the Department of Education that would enable colleges and universities to expand study abroad opportunities for their students. It targets three goals, intended to address the deficiencies and imbalances in current study-abroad participation.
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1. Increase the total number of American students who study abroad for academic credit to one million in ten years.
2. Increase study-abroad participation by minority students, first-generation-to-college students, community college attendees and students with disabilities.
3. Increase the number of students who study abroad in developing countries and other destinations that have historically hosted relatively few students from the United States.
Senate Bill 1198 enjoys enthusiastic support from a large range of education organizations, including the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, the American Association of Community Colleges, the American Council on Education, and NAFSA: Association of International Educators. Given the Trump administration’s antipathy to international education programs, these groups may have their work cut out for them in getting the bill across the finish line.
The individual benefits to students who study abroad are easily understood and most often cited as the reasons why more students should take part. But a larger, national interest is at stake as well, long-recognized and well-expressed by Senator Simon: “America’s incompetence in foreign languages and cultural awareness jeopardizes our nation’s future in global affairs. This lack of global perspective damages America’s ability to compete in world markets. The more competent our country becomes in foreign languages and cultures, the more enhanced our foreign policy decisions will become.”
Now, more than ever, with xenophobia on the rise at home and confidence in America slipping away internationally, we need more strategies that boost young Americans’ understanding of the world and fortify their willingness to grapple with its challenges. And we need a program that will reassure other countries that a nationalist impulse is not the predominant value among the upcoming generation of American leaders. One obvious program to advance these goals is once again within reach. This year Congress should pass the Paul Simon Study Away Program Act.