WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. colleges, holding onto a shrinking lead as the world's biggest educator of international students, are eyeing a promising new market in Brazil, an emerging economy with big hopes for the future but a shortage of skilled labor.
U.S. Commerce Undersecretary Francisco Sanchez will lead officials from 66 U.S. colleges and universities to Brasilia, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro beginning Thursday on what he told Reuters is the biggest trade mission of the Obama administration.
The seven-day visit capitalizes on Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff's "Science Without Borders" initiative aimed at reducing her nation's skills deficit by sending as many as 101,000 students to study abroad over the next four years.
"She's stated publicly that she wants half of those to go to the United States and specifically to study in the STEM areas: science, technology, engineering and math," Sanchez said.
Brazil's skilled-worker shortage is a major challenge on the country's path to developed-nation status. In addition to spurring Brazil to seek educational opportunities abroad, the shortage has encouraged the government to explore ways to ease immigration rules to attract more foreign professionals.
In sectors ranging from construction and oil exploration to telecommunications, companies complain of not being able to find qualified applicants in Brazil to fill jobs.
While Brazil's own universities are graduating an increasing number of students, many still lack the necessary skills to compete internationally, said João de Castro Neves, a Latin American analyst at the Eurasia group in Washington.
"It's basically a matter of quality, not only at the universities but at the primary schools and the secondary schools," Castro Neves said.
The Science Without Borders program, which provides scholarships for Brazilians to study abroad for one year, meshes with the Obama administration's drive to attract more foreign students as part of its effort to double exports.
"Our higher education system is recognized around the world as being one of very high quality, of being of great value and so we want to promote it," said Sanchez, who led an education trade mission last year to Indonesia and Vietnam.
About 650 Brazilian students started U.S. studies under the program in January, and that was followed by a second wave of more than 1,500 students for U.S. summer and autumn course work.
Over the past decade, the U.S. share of the international education market has fallen to 20 percent from 28 percent, as schools in China, Canada, Britain, Australia, France and Japan have increased enrollment.
But U.S. colleges and universities still attract more foreign students than other national systems, and enrollment hit a record 723,277 in 2010-11, up 32 percent from 2000-01.
Foreign students pay the full "out-of-state" cost of a college education, helping schools meet their bottom line.
They represented about 3.5 percent of total enrollment of 20.5 million in 2010-11. Their top fields of study are business and management, engineering, math and computer sciences, and physical and life sciences.
The Commerce Department, which more typically leads trade missions to sell energy equipment or construction services, is involved in promoting education because services sold to overseas students count as exports in national trade tallies. The United States raked in $21 billion in tuition and living expenses paid by foreign students in the 2010-11 academic year.
But only $257 million, from 8,777 students, came from Brazil, the sixth-largest economy in the world. That was just 1.2 percent of the U.S. international student body that year.
"Given the size of Brazil, that should be much larger," Sanchez said. "Our interests are very much aligned here."
China and India, which Brazil sees as rivals for status and innovation on the international stage, sent 157,558 and 103,895 students, respectively, to the United States in 2010-11, accounting for about 36 percent of foreign students here.
Both those countries have a growing middle class and a lot more people willing to spend $200,000 or $300,000 to send their child to school in the United States, said Allan Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education, a U.S. non-profit group that promotes international study.
"They may not own a home ... but they have money, and they're saving it for an education," Goodman said.
He called Brazil's program "brilliant" because it ensures the students have to return home to get their degree. They come to the United States for their third year of university study and transfer those credits back to Brazil.
The U.S. delegation includes small schools such as Emporia State University in central Kansas and large ones such as Michigan State University. Other schools include Rutgers University in New Jersey, the University of Southern California, Texas A&M and the Savannah College of Art & Design in Georgia.
One big obstacle Brazilian students face is the language barrier since they are less likely to know English than their Indian or Chinese counterparts, said Maria de los Angeles Crummett, associate vice president for global affairs at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
Brazilian students, whose native tongue is Portuguese, often have more of a cultural attraction to Europe, which is a challenge for U.S. schools to overcome, Crummett said.
The U.S. State Department is helping to tackle that problem through an intensive English immersion program to prepare Brazilian students for studying in the United States. The Obama administration has also sought to attract more Brazilians to the United States by easing visa requirements for them.
Editing by Tim Ahmann and Eric Beech