America’s university population peaked in 2010 at about 21 million students. We would be mired in a nationwide enrollment crisis if not for two major decade-long trends that cushioned a fall: students enrolling exclusively online and those relocating here from abroad to study. These, combined, now comprise almost a quarter of the nation’s students. Because these two mitigating factors do not benefit all institutions equally, a major redistribution of enrollments is underway. Those institutions with sizeable distance-learning programs and foreign populations are thriving, as others decline and some risk demise. Even Greater Boston—the world’s mecca of higher learning—has not been immune to this zero-sum enrollment shift.
America has long had abundant capacity in its colleges and universities, which have increasingly welcomed those from countries where quality higher education is a scarce resource. This coincided nicely with America’s pivotal role in the growing globalization of the world’s economy. An American degree has become a valuable rite of passage for an aspiring elite in business, government and science and technology. Part of the appeal is the opportunity to stay and work for a year or two beyond the degree (Optional Practical Training)—as about half do—and then to pursue their version of the American Dream long-term.
This dramatic increase in international students—by favoring some institutions, some fields of study and some institutions and regions—has yet to spread across the American academic landscape. Its impact is both sporadic and tenuous. It is tempting to target the Trump administration for imperiling our growing dependence on international students. The responsibility for sustaining our global presence, however, rests just as much on America’s universities.
Debunking claims of internationalization
Whenever I query my students on what percentage of students nationally they think come from other countries, they are often amazed that barely 5% are foreign. This may be their Boston bias showing. About one million international students enroll in U.S. colleges and universities—roughly triple the number over the past two decades. Half do so in only five states: California, New York, Texas, Massachusetts and Illinois. The top academic destinations are three cities (New York, Los Angeles and Boston) that reap tremendous economic rewards from these affluent visitors and their families. One-fifth of all international students attend just 20 large research universities. By expanding and professionalizing their international infrastructure, these and other universities have raised the barriers to entry for schools that have been late—or too small—to expand their international reach.
Since international students often enroll in business and STEM programs—and as often at the graduate as undergraduate level—liberal arts colleges without business majors, universities without engineering schools, and colleges without post-baccalaureate programs rarely see students from abroad.
Even though the U.S. is the desired destination for three-quarters of the world’s migrating students, their impact has been barely felt across the spectrum of schools and programs. The vast majority of America’s professors rarely, if ever, teach any of these students. Likewise, most of America’s domestic students hardly ever encounter someone from another country and, when they do, have only superficial opportunities to benefit from that interaction. We still have a long way to go before international students pervasively and profoundly impact the nation’s campuses.
For the past 30 years, “international” has largely meant Asian. Japan dominated foreign demand in the 1990s, followed by India, and now China. Two-thirds of all current international students are Asian, one-third from China—and growing. The fragility of this dependency on one country and one continent is frightening. Imagine the devastating consequences were the president to declare that Chinese students are a serious national security risk, or if China were to retaliate in a tariff war by taxing (or restricting) those who want to study in the U.S. Nor can this dependency on one region justify claims of a truly international student body.
The purposes for their presence
Nationwide tallies show that new international students began to decline in number even before the Trump Inauguration. Foreign students have shifted toward other institutions in other countries less because of an unwelcoming national administration than because an increasing number of European programs are now taught in English. Canada has become more inviting and affordable, and other nations’ universities are supplanting American schools in global rankings. Trump might exacerbate our declining competitive advantage, but we should not be overconfident that the innate appeal of America’s universities would otherwise persist. Enrollments from China, India and Vietnam are still growing, while other countries cultivate alternative places for their citizens to study. If international numbers remain flat while reliance on several countries intensifies, America’s schools will be even more vulnerable to the vicissitudes of a few nations.
This raises serious questions about whether representation from just these few countries constitutes genuine internationalization. Why have some major research universities been so welcoming? Public institutions, whose mission dictates a local focus, have been especially aggressive in growing their international numbers. If the main reasons are financial, then more full-tuition-paying students becomes an end in itself. If the reasons are academic, then this is a meritocratic means of elevating institutional reputation. In either case, the source of students matters less than their academic pedigree and willingness to pay the full sticker price of a higher education.
But if the motives are more idealistic and humanistic—if the goals are to diversify the student body and enrich the on-campus global experience—then current results of international student recruiting are far more suspect. And where they come from and what they bring to campus life becomes paramount. Simply attracting offspring of affluence from a few countries, doing little to educate them about American life, showing minimal concern for their well-being as strangers in a strange land, and failing to leverage their campus presence to benefit the global savvy of domestic students are not only missed opportunities, but irresponsible and exploitive.
With power comes responsibility
International students are not solely means to greater ends. International students have emerged as the largest, perhaps most overlooked, minority on many college campuses. Those institutions that tout their diversity need to appreciate that this is as much a moral mandate as a statistical achievement. Otherwise, through neglect, student self-segregation persists.
The internationalization of American higher education still has a long way to go, even with likely flatlining of foreign numbers in the near term. Opportunism is only a first step toward achieving a global campus. More institutions need to attract more students from abroad, from a broader range of countries and social classes, across a wider array of disciplines, with greater sensitivity to the challenges of adjusting to the American classroom and culture, and toward greater inclusivity on campus. This will require investing in student recruiting, financial aid, and academic and social programs. Doing so will strengthen the ongoing appeal for those from other countries and cultivate global awareness for the benefit of all.
Jay A. Halfond is a Professor of the Practice at Boston University, where he teaches a course on Global Higher Education, among others. He is the former dean of BU’s Metropolitan College.