For more than a century, talented students from around the globe have sought world-class higher education in the United States. Now, the future of international education in this country is at risk.
We look back on a year when myriad barriers kept those talented students from their ambition—visa restrictions, diplomatic disputes, international travel difficulties, and of course, a global pandemic. Throughout 2020, pursuing higher education in the United States became nearly impossible and even dangerous for many.
More challenges have emerged in 2021. International students have faced many obstacles getting to the U.S., and news coverage of disturbing events and violence in this country have conveyed a message of American instability around the world.
Unless we, as leaders of U.S. higher education, are prepared to find solutions to these impediments, we risk giving up the progress we have made to increase the presence of international students on our campuses, the benefits of which are numerous and far-reaching for all.
Focusing on relationships
Students who travel to the United States gain access to a remarkable system of higher education and simultaneously gain insight into U.S. culture, economy, challenges, opportunities, and outlook. They also add to the rich diversity of talent and personal perspectives in our classrooms, labs, studios, and co-curricular activities.
Exposure to international perspectives prepares every student for success in an increasingly globalized economy.
In addition to these vital outcomes, we must also remember that international students contributed $45 billion to the U.S. economy in 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. The impact of their contribution is magnified at a moment when many sectors of the U.S. economy are struggling.
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Recognizing the importance of international education, many colleges and universities have taken the extra step of meeting international students where they live. As of summer 2020, the majority of institutions increased communications to support students through challenges with visas, health and well-being, housing and more, according to the Institute of International Education.
At Franklin & Marshall College, we focused on the relationships we have developed with our students and their families and built solutions from that starting point. These efforts included a hybrid education model that allows students to take our courses from anywhere in the world.
We built in-person programs in England and China for students who could not travel to our main campus in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. And we doubled down on personal outreach through our global network of alumni and parents.
Bedrock of liberal arts
F&M has long recognized the global nature of contemporary society and how international study, an international focus, and the presence of international students remain the vital bedrock of a modern liberal arts education.
All higher education institutions need to stand with—and fight for —our international students. Many of them cannot be here with us in person right now, but we can and must continue to find ways to be with them until the time comes when they are all able to return.
The changes now must not only respond to students’ immediate needs but must take the longer view and be proactive and sustaining. The pandemic has demonstrated the inescapable nature and value of our shared existence and amplified how the greatest challenges of our times know no national boundaries.
They require collaborative solutions and involve extended timelines. The development and distribution of a vaccine and other effective treatments is just the start.
While news has grown promising recently with the increased proliferation of vaccine distributions domestically, many parts of the world are suffering a lack of access to vaccines. A report issued recently by Moody’s Investors Service offered the sobering view that international enrollment declines will have an impact on higher education for years to come.
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In March 2020, Simon Marginson, director of the Centre for Global Higher Education, noted amidst the earliest days of the pandemic that he expected at least a five-year recovery period for international education. This declaration remains as prescient now as it was ominous then.
Without intentionality and innovative new approaches on the part of colleges and universities, Marginson’s assertion of a five-year recovery seems optimistic at best. But with a continued focus and unwavering commitment to maintaining an international presence and focus in our classrooms, whether online or on campus, perhaps we can do better, for our international students, and for the health of U.S. higher education.
Barbara K. Altmann is president at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania.