Sending a child to college in the United States is quite a costly proposition. Aside from private student loans and some federal grants, there are an array of scholarships and grants from schools, corporations and private groups to help offset the expenses of tuition, books and room and board.

But nothing compares to the international scholarship program launched by Saudi Arabian King Abdullah in 2005, which pays for the college tuition of many Saudi students who elect to attend American universities.

To be eligible for the program, students must have top grades and generally study in a field targeted by the government, such as business, engineering or medicine. Females are required to be accompanied by a close male relative, and the government urges students to avoid political activity and media attention.

This scholarship program has caused the number of Saudi college students in the United States to skyrocket from about 1,000 in 2004 to 66,000 last year. This is the fastest growing source of foreign students in the country, and part of the 723,777 foreign students enrolled during the 2010-2011 school year, up 32 percent from a decade ago.

China still leads the pack in sending students to study in American colleges, with 157,558 students enrolled in 2011. They were followed by India (with 103,895 students) and then various numbers of pupils from South Korea, Canada, Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam, Mexico and Turkey.

According to the Open Doors report, which is published annually by the Institute of International Education (IIE) in partnership with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs, international students contribute more than $21 billion to the U.S. economy, through their expenditures on tuition and living expenses.

Most foreign students receive the majority of their funds from personal and family sources-and there are those who get assistance from their home country governments or universities. Many U.S. college administrators welcome the international market of students, as they serve as a major source of revenue.

Meanwhile, the average cost of a four-year university in America is rising every year. American students are competing more than ever for scholarships and financial aid, but are also facing reductions of valuable government education grants.

With the job market poor, many American students-saddled with massive student loan debt-can’t find a way to repay their loans quickly, and thousands default. In 2009, $2.4 billion in student loans tanked; over $46.6 billion in loans were outstanding as of that year.

Americans can’t find a way to pay their student loans, but by comparison, other nations send their children to college with relative financial ease. The ironic thing is that this country has poured so much money overseas in recent years that it has helped pay for foreign students to go to college, while telling American kids, “You’re on your own.”

Imagine the kind of impact something like the competitive Saudi international scholarship program could have on children in the U.S. It would compel thousands of students to work harder in high school and allow the recipients to attain the best education possible without the fear of having a mountain of debt dumped onto them at graduation.

It’s time our nation made a true commitment to educating our children, which will make for a stronger, more productive nation in the years ahead.

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