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WORLD FOCUS: Envy of the world

May 27, 2011
Thomas Kean, then governor of New Jersey, was participating in a conference on higher education reflecting on his official visits to various foreign countries, among them China and Taiwan, he declared:

“What I saw there often scared the daylight out of me, “he said. “I saw workers who work much longer hours for lower pay. Economies, that are, more productive than ours. Young people whose core values seem not to have been scratched. But one thing allays all my fears. No country comes close to us when it comes to colleges and universities. When you talk to young people, their dream is to come to study at an American college or university. Our higher educational system is still the envy of the world.”

By all indications, Eduardo Ochoa, U. S. Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education, is determined to keep it that way. He identified as a top priority of his office the task of assuring that America’s higher educational system remains No. 1 in the world.

He is chief advisor to the Secretary of Education on higher educational issues, and administers more than 60 programs, with expenditures of $3 billion annually.

“Actually, the Department of Education provides nearly $150 billion annually in Pell grants and direct loans to students,” he said in an interview.

Ochoa was in town in conjunction with the launching of the William & Mary — India Initiative. It is a pilot program on higher education partnership between the United States and India. Last November, a delegation of William &Mary faculty and administrators traveled to India and visited universities in Bangalore, Mumbai and New Delphi exploring opportunities for collaboration with Indian counterparts.

In his lecture, Ochoa, talked about the ways his office intends to strengthen the position of U. S. as a destination for international students and scholars. He chose a college in Virginia, as the site of his lecture, he said, because it was one of the institutions among

U. S. universities that visited Indian counterparts in the framework of a program funded by the U. S. Department of Education. In addition, William & Mary is a venerable institution of higher education, “and because they invited me.”

Ochoa explained that although the U. S. is still the number one destination for international students, its share of global market has been shrinking as countries such as Australia, New Zealand and the European Union expand their outreach.

“The presence of international students in the U. S. is concentrated in elite institutions and in some universities in large urban centers. It is desirable for all of our institutions of higher education to have a significant international student presence as an essential element in preparing all our students for a global, multicultural society. So, priority for the Department of Education is to promote the diffusion of international students throughout our higher education system,” he said

When asked, what is the justification for dispensing $3 billion annually on the 60 programs he administers, Ochoa explained: “The Office of Postsecondary Education provides nearly $3 billion to institutions to support student outreach, tutoring, and other forms of institutional support. But the fundamental rationale is the same: in the 21st century, a nation’s economic and social vitality is critically dependent on having a well-educated citizenry.”

According to Stephen Sechrist, Director of International Students, Scholars and Programs, the mandate of the Office of Postsecondary Education is wide-ranging. In addition to supporting higher education institutions and programs, it recruits and prepares disadvantaged students for successful completion of college, promotes the study of foreign languages and international affairs and support international educational research and exchange activities.

“No doubt, international education, the exchange of students and scholars across borders can be a wonderful public diplomacy, soft-power tool,” Sechrist said.

Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from The Virginia Gazette.


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