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Educating Latin America

What American universities can do.

12:00 AM, Jun 11, 2008 • By JAIME DAREMBLUM
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DON'T LET HUGO Chavez fool you: The past few years have actually been a golden era for economic management in Latin America. Though a small cluster of countries (led by Chavez's Venezuela) have, to varying degrees, embraced destructive populism and done real harm to their business climate, the broader trend has been toward responsible fiscal policies, trade expansion, and market-friendly reforms. Partly for that reason, and partly because they have benefited from soaring commodity prices, Latin American economies are relatively well-positioned to weather the current U.S. slump.

As Alfredo Coutino, senior economist for Latin America at Moody's, said recently, "the region is expected to remain as one of the most attractive markets this year, thanks to its high probability of decoupling from the U.S. recessionary cycle. This is possible because of the region's healthy macroeconomic situation, which is allowing local governments to use their savings to implement countercyclical measures to mitigate the negative effects of the U.S. downturn."

Even so, Latin American growth rates are lagging behind those of many developing countries in East Asia and even sub-Saharan Africa. And Latin America still must grapple with its Achilles' heel: stubbornly inadequate education systems.

Last October, the World Bank released a wide-ranging report on education in Latin America, which argued that "improving student learning" was the "key challenge" for the region. "Countries in Latin America consistently perform poorly in international assessments: even after controlling for per capita GDP, the region's students perform far below students in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and East Asian countries," the report said. "Performance is not only weak, it is also declining relative to other countries with similar income levels. In 1960, 7 percent of adults in Latin America and 11 percent of adults in East Asia had completed upper-secondary school. Forty years later, this figure had quadrupled to 44 percent in East Asian and risen to just 18 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean. The region has fallen even farther behind Spain and the Scandinavian countries--countries that had comparable levels of educational attainment in 1960."

Latin America has long been notorious for its wide income disparities. Though many countries have reduced economic and social inequality, the persistence of educational inequality has slowed their progress. Indeed, the region will never be able to achieve its full potential until it tackles the education issue.

That includes higher education. Latin American institutions are virtually absent from lists of the world's top 200 universities, with two or three barely making the cut. And yet there is a huge demand in Latin America for advanced education, particularly in specialized areas such as engineering.

What can the United States do to help? Obviously we have very limited direct influence over primary and secondary education in foreign countries. But one way to improve higher education in the region would be for U.S. colleges and universities to establish branch campuses there. While American institutions are flocking in droves to set up campuses in the Middle East, and particularly in the Gulf countries, they have tended to neglect Latin America. Meanwhile, the number of Latin American students in the United States is declining.

New York University and Pepperdine University have branch campuses in Buenos Aires. Just imagine if other prominent American schools followed their lead. During recent years, several prestigious universities-including Cornell, Texas A&M, Carnegie Mellon, and Northwestern-have either opened or announced plans to open branch campuses in Doha, Qatar. The goal is to boost educational opportunities for Middle Eastern students and to facilitate cultural exchanges. If that idea makes sense in Qatar, why not pursue it in Brazil, one of the largest democracies in the world? Indeed, if a series of American schools began to establish campuses in cities like Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Salvador, it could provide a positive jolt to the entire Brazilian education system.

As it stands now, many bright Latin American students cannot afford to attend college in the United States; nor do they have access to quality higher education in their home countries. A proliferation of branch campuses would help address this problem. If students had greater access to American universities, Latin American institutions would face more competition. This would encourage them to improve. For that matter, expanded opportunities at the university level could also spur much-needed reforms in the region's primary and secondary schools.