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In a global economy, study and business experience abroad are critical. Yet Americans stay home while 400,000 foreign students come here to learn. Call it ... : THE STUDENT GAP

August 28, 1994|KARL SCHOENBERGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Shadowing the $100-billion U.S. merchandise trade deficit with the ascendant economies of Asia is an equally astounding "student gap"--a strategic lapse that experts warn is laying a groundwork of ignorance and incompetence for the United States as a player in the global economy.

At last count, there were 63 times as many foreign students from Asia on U.S. campuses as there were Americans studying in Asia, according to the Institute of International Education.

The statistic means American businesses will remain at a distinct disadvantage as they negotiate with their counterparts in Asia across language barriers and cultural chasms, analysts contend. Opportunities are bound to be lost, they say, because of limited access to basic information in the markets of America's most important economic rivals.

"The imbalance implies a huge problem," said Eric J. Gangloff, director of the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission, an agency created by Congress to foster cultural exchange. "To be able to work effectively with Japan or other Asian countries, we need a large number of young Americans coming up through the ranks who are competent. But this can only be accomplished through in-country learning."

To be sure, the lopsided relationship is due largely to a laudable American tradition of opening its educational system to the world. The IIE says 438,618 foreign students were enrolled at U.S. campuses in 1993, more than half from Asia. The assumption is that some will end up working for American industry and that many others will return home with a profound appreciation of democratic values--an intangible asset for U.S. influence on the world.

But when it comes to training its own students, the United States suffers from world-class myopia, despite the wealth of international diversity on its campuses. Perhaps out of cultural arrogance, perhaps out of apathy or the fear of the unknown, relatively few young Americans venture outside of the comfort of Western Europe for international learning experiences.

Of the approximately 13.5 million American university students, only 8% are enrolled in language courses and a mere 0.5% go overseas to study, surveys show.

Only a small number of exchange students and graduate fellows are gaining experience in Asia, the Middle East, Africa or Eastern Europe. Instead, nearly three quarters of them go to Western Europe; one in four goes to Britain for study.

In a competitive world, that kind of student deployment no longer makes sense to a growing number of educators and policy-makers. The new thinking on global education is moving away from the time-honored fantasy of reading poetry in Parisian cafes during a junior year abroad and instead refocusing on such practical matters as training engineering students to read patents in Japanese.

"There's a real shortage of people with technical expertise who know Japan well," said Norbert Hootsmans, who interned in a Hitachi engineering research lab in Japan after getting his Ph.D in engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology two years ago. "I see a strong need out there, but there are very few people who can bridge the gap."

Hootsmans now works as a scientist specializing in manufacturing technology development at United Technologies in East Hartford, Conn. For him, going to Japan for experience was the logical thing to do. "In my field," he said, "you go to where the technology is the best."

Hootsmans is a success story, but he's the exception.

To redirect the Eurocentric orientation of overseas study, Sen. David Boren (D-Okla.) pushed a bill through Congress in 1991 establishing the National Security Education program. The program's aim is to finance overseas study outside Western Europe and build academic infrastructure at U.S. institutions for study of neglected areas of the world.

The program was originally authorized for a $150-million "peace dividend" endowment from the intelligence budget, but lawmakers ultimately wrangled the money from the B-2 bomber program.

Already, however, the program is under pressure. In June, about a month after its first 485 awards were announced, the House defense subcommittee on appropriations rejected authorization to spend interest from the endowment fund to finance next year's operations.

Proponents hope they'll have better luck in the Senate, where the Appropriations Committee is considering a bill that would restore authorization to spend $8.5 million on the program. It was funded at $10 million this year and had requested $14.3 million for next year.

"I think there's a lot of misunderstanding of what the program is doing," said Charlene King, director of the lean staff of volunteers administering the grants.

King rejects criticism from some members of Congress that the program is frivolous, noting that a third of the undergraduate fellowships awarded this year are sending students to East Asia, a critical and challenging study environment.

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