• August 2, 2014

No Better Export: Higher Education

In his State of the Union address, President Obama, who has emphasized the importance of higher education in our nation, said we must "out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world. ... That's how we'll win the future." From my perspective, a crucial element of winning the future is an increased focus on exports—and among our most valuable exports is education.

This week I have been joined by recruiters from 56 colleges and universities across the country, from Columbia University to the University of Texas at San Antonio, for a weeklong education mission to Jakarta, Indonesia, and to Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, Vietnam. The purpose of the trip is to explore opportunities for student recruitment and partnerships with higher-education institutions in those two countries. In each city, we are meeting with students and their families, and the participating American colleges will promote their international-study programs in the United States. We have also organized networking sessions and education symposia to promote university-to-university partnerships, such as faculty exchanges, student exchanges, and research projects.

Why do this? Why now?

At the International Trade Administration, in the U.S. Commerce Depart­ment, my primary objective is to spur job creation and aid the nation's economic recovery by doubling U.S. exports within five years. You might not think of students as part of our export strategy, but, in fact, higher education ranks among the country's top 10 service exports, right between environmental services and safety and security. We are the largest destination for international students seeking higher education; tuition and living expenses paid by those students and their families brought nearly $20-billion to the U.S. economy during the 2009-10 academic year. According to the Institute of International Education, that dollar figure is expected to continue rising.

More than 20,000 students from Indonesia and Vietnam are already enrolled in colleges and universities in the United States, and most of them pay full tuition. That opens opportunities for more American students to receive financial aid and scholarships. The purchasing power of international students who study in the United States remains strong after they graduate and return home. And as they become part of the growing middle class, regardless of where they live in the world, they will have a better understanding and appreciation of American products and services, and will be more likely to remain our customers.

We are focusing on Jakarta, Ho Chi Minh City, and Hanoi for a number of reasons.

Expanding educational opportunities for students in emerging economies like Indonesia's and Vietnam's is critical to developing a middle class in those markets. The new middle-class consumers emerge with increased resources to participate in both local and global markets, including that of the United States.

In Jakarta, education is the No. 1 priority of the U.S. Embassy, and doubling the number of Indonesian students in the United States by 2014 is one of its top goals. This mission will help meet that goal and ultimately benefit both our educational institutions and our economy. We used our domestic network to recruit colleges and universities that are interested in exploring international partnerships and working toward a global educational approach on their campuses.

In Vietnam, with a population of 86 million, a steadily increasing per capita income, and the high value placed on education, there are significant opportunities for American providers of education services. Vietnam has more than 20,000 students studying abroad, paying about $200-million in tuition and fees every year. It ranks ninth among countries sending students to the United States.

Expanding the educational opportunities for Indonesian and Vietnamese students will provide direct benefits to U.S. companies doing business with those critical markets in the future. Many of them seek out U.S.-educated distributors overseas because of their understanding of American culture, their English-language skills, and the resulting increased ease of doing business with them. This is a part of a long-term strategy to set America on strong footing in emerging global markets.

However, international competition is fierce, and the United States has seen a 30-percent decrease of its market share in the past decade, reinforc­ing the importance of its efforts to maintain its position as the world's leading higher-education destination. Building ties with international students not only helps American students gain a greater level of international understanding—a vital skill for success in the 21st-century global economy—but also familiarizes future global leaders with the American people and U.S. society. As we look to "win the future," I see no more valuable export than that.

Francisco Sánchez is under secretary for international trade at the U.S. Commerce Department.

subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.