by Pedro Casas Alatriste *
The world is shifting into a geographical-focused development, empowering the concept of regional blocks. Ours – the North American – will be stronger based on the ability to exchange resources between us, including human capital.
Depending on the year counting, Mexico and the United States are each top trading partners. We have the busiest border on the planet. As a region, North America has some of the most integrated regional value chains, such as the automotive. Yet, our academic exchanges are much far from those thresholds.
If we are truly aiming to deepen economic integration in North America, and building a power-region under the new USMCA trade agreement, we must reinforce the region’s academic cooperation platform. The current situation is not encouraging, let me tell you why.
For a Mexican student, statistically speaking, is almost impossible to study a post-secondary degree abroad. More precisely, studying a graduate degree is a years-long adventure and just a few have the ex-ante opportunities to achieve it.
According to IIE last national survey, this year, 1,075,496 international students were in tertiary education in the US, of whom 14,348 were Mexicans: an astonishing 1.33%. From that small fraction, close to 25% are graduate students. You will find 28 times more Americans visiting Mexican beaches in any given Spring Break season than Mexican graduate students for any two years in the United States.
Just to put things in perspective, and despite the current US presidential rhetoric, China sends over 370,000 higher-education students per year to the US. Don’t get me wrong, this is extraordinarily good to the world’s globalization, the exchange of knowledge, and deeper integration. It just reinforces the fact that we, as global and regional partners, are doing something wrong.
Likewise, the US sends close to 350,000 students abroad each year. None of the North American neighbors – Canada or Mexico – are on the top 10 destinations. Sadly for us, places like Costa Rica receive more US students than any of us. More precisely, Costa Rica welcomes four times the number of American students than Canada. Mexico holds only 1.82% of the total.
Giving more than just a data-driven opinion, as a current graduate student at Georgetown University, I can say that this tortuous road is absolutely worthy from a bilateral integration perspective.
After a couple of years of preparation, a couple more dreaming about it, a Mexican federal loan, a private credit, a university’s scholarship, significant family support, and my life’s savings, I’m just about safe economic-wise, to live and study in the United States for the next two years and being in debt for the next 15.
How I am able – even digitally – to connect with the culture, to the way of thinking and working, the professors and my classmates in the US, will turn me into a high-valuable asset to the future of the US-Mexico bilateral relationship. I knew precisely from the start it was the personal investment I was doing in myself and the region. Sadly, just few, very privileged people like me, can do so.
The road to study abroad is just paved – deficiently – for those who have access to the high-end car capable of driving that path; and that rate is dolefully decreasing.
According to the DHS visa’ data, the active student visas for Mexicans in the US decreased 3.8% from 2018 to 2019. This year, 2020, it decreased an additional 5.8%. While trade, FDI, migration and security assistance intensify, academic cooperation is thrown deeper to oblivion.
Bilateral cooperation in the education front is shouting for help! Following the changing trends of social and economic dynamics, this is no longer just a public policy fight. The private sector must step into taking care of their economic interests – just as it did during the USMCA negotiation – by training the region’s future workforce. Private and public sector, from both countries, must address this problem by facilitating the access to binational student loans, scholarships, reducing bureaucratic impediments for visas, and lowering entry barriers for work experiences.
It is in our own hands to build the social platform that will be able to uphold the dimension of the most important bilateral relation of both countries, Mexico and the United States of America.
I encourage every business-people, Mexican or American, seeking to increase their presence in the binational markets to look at those forgotten places: look at the Dreamers, look at training your personnel in the neighboring country, look at investing in the education sector to increase the possibilities of young talented individuals to study abroad.
I encourage every public servant to rethink our national priorities. Investing in people will be the key to ensure a prosperous future for North American and of both nations. Having a long-term plan addressing the future of work is essential to guarantee that we leave no one behind.
Finally, I encourage you, the kind reader, to think in ways you can support anyone to increase their access to higher education, preferably abroad.
We know how these academic exchanges can strengthen regional cultural diversity, innovation potential, cross-border understanding, and easiness to trade, invest and develop.
As Malala Yousafzai, the youngest Nobel Peace Price laureate once said: “One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world”. Let’s don’t miss the chance again, let’s invest in binational and trinational education, let’s bet for the future of the North American Region.
* Pedro Casas Alatriste is co-founder of En Esta Esquina, a Mexico City-based debate platform, and a graduate student at Georgetown University. He is also a Fellow at the U.S.-Mexico Foundation. The U.S.-Mexico Foundation is a binational non-profit organization dedicated to fostering bilateral cooperation and improving the understanding between the United States and Mexico by activating key people in the relationship that once were dormant. Twitter: @usmexicofound