January 18, 2020 by Dean Hoke. I have been involved in higher education for over 45 years. In my first university position in the 1970s, a part of my responsibilities was international student admissions. 35 years later, I lived and worked in the United Arab Emirates for two higher education institutions. Over the past four years, I have become deeply concerned about the hostile administration policies toward international students in the United States. International students not only benefit from the experience, but United States students, institutions, and communities also benefit from the experience.
In this essay, I present the survey results in which I asked U.S. administrators the five key reasons why international students should study in the United States and the five countries which they consider primary competitors. Following the results, I offer five ways to start a new era for International students in America.
As we enter the early stages of 2021, we are beginning to see the first glimpse of light after a dark year for higher education in the United States. Our educational institutions were forced to confront the most significant challenges to higher education since World War II. The 3,000+ post-secondary institutions managed the pandemic as well as could be expected. Many institutions experienced a substantial loss in revenue due to fewer students and forced cutbacks in staff, faculty, elimination of academic and sports programs, and in some cases, the permanent closing of some schools.
According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, Fall 2020 enrollment for first-time freshmen to graduate school in the United States experienced an overall decline of 2.6%. That means 473,474 fewer students than the previous year. The overall losses included 175,000 international students and 36.7% of the overall loss.
Many do not realize that International student enrollment in U.S. institutions accounted for approximately 6% of total U.S. post-secondary enrollment. In November 2020, an Institute of International Education survey conducted by Julie Baer and Mirka Martel reported an overall reduction of 16% of international students. First-time enrollment of new international students decreased by 43% — this is a loss of 175,000 students and a projected revenue loss of $6.3 billion costing nearly 4,500 jobs.
COVID 19 can be fairly blamed for much of this loss for international students, but it is not the only reason. It merely accelerated it. The new international student population began to experience a small enrollment decline starting in the Fall of 2016 and has continued ever since. The hostile policies and the mood towards universities and international students in the Trump administration directly affected international parents and potential students. The issues regarding international students that U.S. colleges and universities are continuously addressing are cost, opportunity to stay in the U.S. for additional occupational practical training, personal safety. The increasing view of people from other countries is America no longer welcoming.
Despite everything and the recent student population drop, America still has the highest number of international students globally. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), in the Fall of 2019, there were 5.3 million international students enrolled in higher education outside their own home country.
From December 19, 2020, to January 12, 2021, I surveyed 53 United States education leaders to determine why an international student should study in the United States.
What are the five reasons why a student outside the U.S. should study in the United States?
Cultural Diversity 72%
“Global students coming to experience College have the opportunity to embrace a complete understanding of the real United States and Americans beyond stereotypes” Marc Camille, President, Albertus Magnus College
“living and learning communities – a holistic education focusing on mind, body, and spirit – a residential curriculum – coming together and living with people from different class/cultures, ethnicities” Pareena Lawrence Senior Fellow, Yale University
“The multicultural diversity at American universities gives international students the opportunity to learn about many other cultures and share their own national culture with others” Clifton Smart, Missouri State University
Enhanced Employability such as Internships and OPT 62%
“Job opportunities. Even with tougher immigration, the U.S. offers the largest growth markets in tech, finance, biotech, and healthcare.” Eric Johnson, Dean Owen Graduate School of Business, Vanderbilt University
“Career opportunities after graduation are strengthened, in the students’ home countries or in top international graduate programs, delivered through the overall excellence of the academic experience and the strong reputations of U.S. colleges or universities.” Richard Bartecki, Executive Vice President IES Abroad
“The OPT system gives students the opportunity to work in the U.S. after they graduate, and prove their worth to an employer who can then sponsor them for a permanent work visa” David Finegold President, Chatham University
Academic Excellence and Reputation 60%
“The United States has more highly ranked universities than any other nation and thus at doctoral level the opportunities for unfettered research is unparalleled.” Don Hossler Senior Scholar, University of Southern California and Provost Professor Emeritus, Indiana University Bloomington
“America: they know we have the best higher education system in the world because it is competitive … we are all seeking continuous improvement” Timothy Collins President Walsh University, Ohio
“Student’s ability to study in the world’s best system of higher education, with outstanding faculty” Dianne Harrison, President California State University, Northridge
Flexible Education System 55%
“U.S. institutions offer far more flexibility than nearly any other post-secondary institution in the world. Students may have majors and minors, double majors, change their mind in a major without starting over” Patty Croom, Michigan State University
“A curriculum that allows flexibility in declaring or changing the academic major, one that includes general education and major specific course requirements” Gil Latz, Ohio State University
Research and Resources 47%
“The United States is in the top 10 countries for innovation with the number one spot for two of the seven indicators, technology company density and patent activity.” Retired General Dondi Costin, President, Charleston Southern University
“The most open, fair, equitable and merit-driven research and education system in the world.” Suresh Garimella, President, University of Vermont
Student Interaction and Network
“You’ll be able to develop a network of fellow students, university professors, and others who may be able to help you in your future endeavors.” Eric Schultz, Marketing Professor, Utah State University
“Right now the English language is as close as we get to a lingua franca—a universal language. Total immersion in the English language will have long-term benefits.” Elaine Mainon, Former University President and currently Advisor at the American Council for Education.
Excellent Support System for Students
“On American campuses students interact together in a safe and democratic communion alongside talented faculty and staff. Together they learn, bond, and consider ways to improve the human condition.” Christopher Washington, Executive Vice President and Provost, Franklin University
Affordability and Value
“Cost is often very reasonable, and most U.S. universities have scholarship funds available for International students. Many international students qualify academic and athletic scholarships. Many schools have student exchange programs with international schools.” Allen Meadors, Chancellor Emeritus, University Of North Carolina – Pembroke
“We see many international students looking for a collegiate sport experience.” Joseph Chillo, President, Thomas More University
Who Does the United States Compete with for International undergraduate and graduate students?
The second part of the survey asked 53 American educators to select up to five countries they would consider competition to U.S. universities.
The United Kingdom has 452,000 international students, of which 18% of its total student population are international. The United Kingdom was selected by 78% of our survey respondents (undergraduate and graduate). However, due to the recent BREXIT agreement, there is a question of whether the U.K. will continue to be the biggest competitor to the United States. The most represented countries China, India, the USA, Hong Kong.
Canada has 224,500 international students and rising quickly due to their student visa policy, quality institutions, and pro attitude towards student visas and job training/employment. 14% of its total students are from other countries. Canada was selected by 70% of our survey respondents as an undergraduate competitor 63% graduate competitor. The most represented countries are China, India, and France.
Australia has over 677,000 international students according to Australian Government figures of which 27% of its total higher education student population are international. Australia was selected by 60% of our survey respondents as an undergraduate competitor and 44% as a graduate competitor. The most represented countries are China, India, and Nepal. The visa policies for international students who recently graduated from an Australian university is usually 2 to 4 years.
Germany has 312,000 international students, and there is expected growth due to the recent BREXIT deal and overall world ranking of their universities. 10% of its total higher education population comes from other countries. 43% of survey respondents selected Germany as an undergraduate competitor and 59% as a graduate competitor due to their strength in the STEM field. The most represented countries are China, India, Austria, and Russia.
China has 201,000 international students and, like Canada growing yearly. Their universities are gaining in global rankings. Based on our research, we expect to see student growth from the Silk Road Countries. Currently, 1% of their total higher education population is international. China was selected by 30% of survey respondents as an undergraduate competitor and 32% as a graduate competitor. The most represented countries are South Korea, Thailand, and Pakistan but expect to see growth from the Silk Road Countries.
Note: Source for student populations -The UNESCO Global Flow of Tertiary-Level Students dated September 2019
These five nations and the United States account for 51% of the students currently studying abroad.
Five Ideas to Start A New Era for International Students in America
Expand the Optional Practical Training (OPT).
The Biden administration needs to streamline the process and expand the length of stay. The current OPT program is a student visa extension that allows international students to work in the U.S. for one year after graduation and two years if they are in a STEM field. Once a student’s OPT expires, they have a 60-day grace period to leave the U.S., change their status, or transfer their F-1 visa status to a new school or program.
Many nations who compete for students to study in their respective countries have developed attractive training packages during their academic studies. International students widely consider Canada as the most attractive for working in Canada after graduation. According to a poll conducted by Abacus Data in October 2020 found that 89% of Canadians believe it is important for higher education to attract top talent worldwide. The Canadian “Post-Graduation Work Permit” permits an international student who graduated from an eligible higher education institution to work for up to three years. It was announced on January 8 that former students who hold post-graduation work permits that have expired or will soon expire can now apply for open work permits for an additional 18 more months to remain in Canada to try to find jobs. Canada does not restrict visa permits to just the STEM field.
The U.K. government is discussing expanding its two-year post-study work visa to four years to make the U.K. more attractive in light of Brexit. Other nations such as Australia, the Netherlands, and New Zealand offer tracks that can lead to permanent residency. Recently the United Arab Emirates began offering a ten-year residency visa to scientists and Ph.D.’s.
The Biden administration set a target for annual growth of 7-10 percent in the number of international students attending U.S. universities.
In the January 2021 issue of Foreign Affairs Magazine, Ambassador Power wrote an article titled “The Can-Do Power.” In particular, she addressed the subject of academic excellence. She wrote, “While no initiative would have the impact of U.S. leadership on vaccines, one of the best ways to showcase the United States’ ingenuity and know-how is to again make its universities the most attractive in the world to foreign talent. Biden has pledged to end Trump’s most visibly prejudicial immigration policies, such as the Muslim ban and inhumane asylum restrictions. But American universities have a special place in the global imagination, and lowering the visa hurdles for study in the United States while creating better, more accessible pathways for international students to work in the United States after graduation can pay both short- and long-term dividends in expanding U.S. influence.”
“It is hard to think of a more cost-effective way for Biden to reach global populations concerned about the direction of the United States than by celebrating the fact that the country is again welcoming bright young minds from around the world. Biden could start by delivering a major speech announcing that his administration is joining with American universities in again welcoming international students, making clear that they are assets rather than threats.”
While a 7-10 percent increase is ambitious, U.S. higher education experienced such growth in the first half of the past decade, and UNESCO projects growth of international students worldwide from the current 5.3 million to 7 million by 2030.
Develop new scholarship opportunities to attract International Students
Potential financial supports come from individuals, corporations, and foundations to entice high academic quality undergraduate and graduate students worldwide. For example, The Fulbright Programs are full scholarships for international students who primarily pursue a master’s degree. Approximately 4,000 students receive scholarships each year. We need to expand programs such as Fulbright instead of attempting to cut the budget this past year by 56%. Additionally, U.S. colleges and universities should explore expanding scholarship options from their donor base for undergraduate and graduate students.
Enhanced International Recruitment and Marketing
Many U.S. universities and colleges laid off hundreds if not thousands of professionals who work in international recruitment, retention, and support staff due to the massive drop in enrollment caused by the pandemic. While it was painful to do so, it is difficult to argue the necessity. The prevailing view is that international students will be able to travel to the U.S. and attend classes on campus by the fall. The U.S. government needs to fast-track the student visa process to help the potential new and past students. Additionally, the government needs to emphasize that the United States welcomes students and creates an international marketing campaign to promote higher education.
Expand Academic International Partnerships
Tier One U.S. universities over the decades have developed relationships and partnerships worldwide. As a result of these partnerships, it has helped recruit quality students, create an alumni base outside the U.S., and generate grants. Smaller state and private universities have the same opportunity to develop partnerships as well. My experience working with universities located in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East has shown us they admire U.S. institutions and believe in developing positive relationships for them in recruitment and image. More are expanding their thinking to welcome relationships with schools with niche programs and see mutual benefits to both institutions.
The new Biden administration has the opportunity to restore and enhance the image of U.S. higher education in the eyes of the world. International students bring to the United States cultural and economic value. It is also an excellent and pragmatic foreign policy. Many worldwide leaders in government and industry are graduates of American institutions. If we do not educate these potential leaders, someone else will fill the void, such as China. American universities are currently the gold standard for post-secondary education, and we must continue to hold that position.
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