Cuba’s student programs work well

The House of Representatives approved a proposal last week to dramatically increase the number of U.S. college students studying in Latin America and other parts of the developing world.

That’s great but it would be even better if it also increased the number of foreign students studying in the United States.

In that, Washington should keep a close eye on Cuba.

Let’s start with the proposal to send more U.S. students abroad, known as the Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Act.

Under the plan, included in the Foreign Relations Authorization Act approved by the House on Wednesday, the U.S. government would quadruple to one million a year the number of U.S. college students who study abroad over the next 10 years.

There is little question that the United States needs to increase its connections with developing countries to stay competitive in a global economy.

Low figure

Right now, only 0.3 percent of U.S. college students study abroad, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). U.S. officials say the figure is closer to 1 percent. Still, that’s a low figure compared with the more than 6 percent of Norwegian college students of 2.5 percent of French students who study abroad, according to UNESCO figures.

While passage of the proposal in the Senate would be a great step in advancing U.S. political and economic ties with the developing world, it would be much better if it also included plans to increase the number of foreign students coming to the United States.

Right now, very few of the estimated 623,000 foreign students from all over the world, including 64,000 from Latin America and the Caribbean, study in U.S. colleges. Only 0.5 percent of foreign students in U.S. universities cite the U.S. government as their primary source of funds, while another 26 percent say their studies are mainly paid by their U.S. colleges, according to the U.S. Institute of International Education.

The legislation passed by the House would only add an estimated 200 students from the region a year under a program for indigenous people from Mexico and Central America, and a still to be determined additional number of students from English-speaking Caribbean countries.

Meantime, growing numbers of Latin American and Caribbean college students are going to Cuba, according to UNESCO’s “Global Education Digest 2008.” While the United States remains the leading destination for students from Latin American and Caribbean countries, Cuba is already the No. 1 destination for students from five countries in the region, and the No. 2 destination for another 13 countries. Among them:

U Bolivia has 4,800 college students in Cuba, 1,030 in the United States, and 490 in Argentina.

U Paraguay has 865 college students in Cuba, 390 in Argentina and 330 in the United States.

U Uruguay has 780 college students in Cuba, 530 in the United States and 500 in Argentina.

U Nicaragua has nearly 850 college students in Cuba, 425 in the United States and 287 in Costa Rica.

Cuba is the second largest foreign study destination for university students from Venezuela (3,850), Honduras (940), Guatemala (670), El Salvador (708), Panama (500) and Costa Rica (250), among others.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard L. Berman, D-Calif., who sponsored the bill passed last week, told me in a telephone interview that chances that the proposed legislation will be approved by the Senate are “better than 50-50.”

When I told Berman about the number of Latin American and Caribbean countries that have Cuba as one of the top destinations for their university students, he said, “That’s a fascinating figure. We need to rectify that.”

My opinion: The Senate should approve the Study Abroad Act, and increase U.S. funds for foreign student exchanges.

X Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.