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How to Strengthen Latin America

The United States should embrace a multi-pronged strategy aimed at improving educational opportunities.


It’s morning in Latin America. From Mexico to Argentina, men and women are going to work and earning good salaries—moving their families out of poverty and into the middle class in unprecedented numbers. (Around 15 million Latin American households, The Economist magazine reports, ceased to be poor between 2002 and 2006.) Inflation, long the scourge of Latin American economies, has fallen into the single digits, and sound fiscal policies are bringing deficits under control. Latin America is also gradually improving its business climate, to the delight of foreign investors. India’s leading steel producer, for instance, recently agreed to invest over $2 billion in a Bolivian iron mine and steel plant.

It seems that after a history of disastrous economic policies, self-destructive political radicalism, and horrific poverty, Latin America is getting its act together.


But don’t cue the feel-good music just yet. Education—and specifically higher education—is the region’s Achilles heel. Yes, Latin Americans are finding jobs and making money as the economy booms. But if prices for the region’s commodities decline—and there are those who think high prices for Brazilian steel, Chilean copper, and other goods are driving the region’s economic growth—are Latin Americans prepared to be a part of a high-tech, knowledge-based economy? 

Right now it is easy to be pessimistic. Not a single Latin American university is ranked among the top 100 in the world by either The Times of London or Shanghai Jiao Tong University (both of which have compiled global rankings). Indeed, only three Latin American institutions make it into the top 200 on either list. 

Nor are Latin Americans taking advantage of their proximity to top-ranked U.S. institutions. While large numbers of Asian students now study at American colleges and universities—India has 84,000 students in U.S. colleges, China has nearly 68,000, and South Korea has 62,000, according to the Institute of International Education—only 14,000 Mexican students, 7,100 Brazilian students, and 4,500 Venezuelan students do. India alone has more graduate students on U.S. campuses than all 32 Latin American and Caribbean countries combined.


But what if more Latin American students could matriculate at American universities without ever setting foot on American soil? That would be possible if more U.S. universities opened “branch campuses”—that is, satellite campuses in foreign countries intended mainly for foreign students—throughout the region. If Latin Americans cannot or will not go to the United States to receive a high-quality education, the high-quality education can come to them.

Seeking to position themselves as international universities with global reach, American institutions have been establishing these branches abroad for over a decade, mainly in the Persian Gulf and Asia. George Mason University, for example, has a branch in Ras al Khaimah, a city-state that is part of the United Arab Emirates. Cornell University has a medical school in Qatar, and New York University is in the process of establishing a branch in Abu Dhabi. Georgia Tech University, which just won an award for promoting international education, has branch campuses in Singapore and Shanghai. 

But why limit branch campuses to the Middle East or Asia? American universities desiring a truly global presence need campuses on every continent. And setting up branches in Latin America would benefit the host countries as well as the American schools: Latin American students would no longer have to settle for a deficient education or go into debt to travel to the United States and pay expensive tuitions. American universities would become more truly global—Cornell sees its medical school in Qatar as furthering “its role as a transnational university”—and would be able to offer new opportunities to faculty. 


Finally, branch campuses in Latin America would provide an urgently needed service. The George Mason website explains that the university “looked worldwide and decided that the Arab region was an area where education was needed.” If branch campuses are being located where there is a need for education, then American universities should be looking much closer to home. 

Ideally, branch campuses would only be one part of a broader U.S. strategy aimed at improving the quality of education in Latin America. The federal government and private institutions should foster educational exchanges, which create lasting ties and encourage mutual respect. They should also increase the number of scholarships available to Latin American high school and college students for study in the United States. Such initiatives would help give those students the tools they need to succeed in the global economy. 

Jaime Daremblum is director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the Hudson Institute and a former Costa Rican ambassador to the United States. This article is reprinted with permission from The American magazine. Copyright 2008, The American. Web address: www.american.com

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