South Africa's University of Cape Town beats out Georgetown University on the QS rankings. But Georgetown's fees are $40,000-plus, compared to an upper end of $8,000 for foreign students attending Cape Town. And only one of the two comes with quality local wine and views of Table Mountain. Or what about the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi -- ranked a little above Notre Dame in the QS rankings, but with annual fees somewhere between a fifth and a seventh of the price? Again, on the same rankings, the American University of Beirut beats out Brandeis -- for one-fifth the price.
Want to combine a quality education with language immersion? Peking University -- No. 49 on the Times criteria, above Penn State -- charges between $4,000 and $6,000 in tuition a year. For those wanting to brush up their Spanish, the Catholic University of Chile ranks considerably above Wake Forest, but the fees are 80 percent lower.
But junior won't just learn language there. The even-better news is that many developing country universities score better on the teaching environment than they do on overall rankings. For example, the Times scores suggests that Peking University's ranking on teaching is better than all but 15 of the 49 universities above it on the list. That may be why a growing number of foreign students are flocking to universities in middle income countries. In 2009, three developing economies -- Russia, China, and South Africa -- attracted nearly 250,000 overseas students between them, according to the OECD.
So, American high-school kids would both pad their resumes and do their parents a favor by considering schools abroad instead of lower-ranked U.S. options. They would also do the United States a favor, because the country's tertiary education system is looking increasingly isolated in a globalizing world. The OECD suggests that the number of students enrolled in college outside their country of citizenship worldwide climbed from 2.1 million to over 3.5 million between 2000 and 2009. But U.S. undergraduates accounted for only 0.4 percent of that global total. The Institute for International Education can only find evidence of 12,425 U.S. students enrolled in overseas undergraduate degree programs (almost half of them in Britain). Compared to an overall U.S. tertiary student body of around 20 million, that's about 0.06 percent.
Meanwhile, when it comes to importing scholars, the OECD suggests that, in terms of absolute numbers, the United States still leads the world in attracting foreign students. In 2009, U.S. universities took in 18 percent of the global total of study abroad candidates, but that had dropped from 23 percent in 2000, and left U.S. colleges and universities as a whole with less than two-thirds the OECD average of foreign student enrollment.
That's bad news for America: not least, a limited number of people who have spent time living abroad helps account for the country's dire lack of polyglots. Only about 14 percent of Americans claim they can speak Spanish well enough to hold a conversation -- a surprisingly low number considering that 16 percent of the country reports being of Hispanic or Latino origin. A little over 4 percent can have a chat in French, and a little less than 3 percent German -- and if we move onto Mandarin or Urdu, we're talking fractions of a percent. As well as being a potential national security issue, a denuded flow of students in and out of the United States reduces the country's ability to trade, invest, and exchange technology internationally.
All of which suggests the government ought to be helping the more intrepid American high school graduates enroll in college abroad. Why not change the requirements for institutional participation in federal student aid programs to allow foreign schools to provide support to U.S. student tuition and living costs? Or expand study abroad programs like the Gilman Scholarship to cover full degree programs overseas? Or perhaps extend Fulbright scholarships to cover undergraduates? Or, perhaps even more effective: advertise the fact that, in most of the rest of the world, the legal drinking age is 18.