The Growing Risk Facing Our Greatest Export

By Brad Farnsworth and Gretchen M. Bataille

January 23, 2017

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By Gretchen M. Bataille and Bradley D. Farnsworth

International students come to the United States from all over the world seeking education and career training not available in their home countries. Most return to those countries after graduation to pursue a career in their field of study, which is when the true power of a high-quality education is realized.

This global impact is a significant benefit, but international students also bring value to their U.S. classrooms. Students today must be prepared to communicate, collaborate and compete in a world that is becoming smaller and more diverse. Yet data from the most recent Open Doors report from the Institute of International Education shows that only one in ten U.S. undergraduate students studies abroad, meaning that the vast majority of American students have limited exposure to opportunities to build their language skills and expand their global perspectives in another country. Much of ACE’s international programming focuses on the “other 90 percent”—helping our members provide a global perspective to those students who will never have a chance to study abroad (for examples, see here and here). One aspect of this global perspective comes from the growing and diverse international student population on U.S. campuses, which enriches the learning experience for everyone—with American business and industry the ultimate beneficiaries.

Quality education is also a multiplier, with an impact reaching far beyond our member campuses. It produces educated, empowered students who effect change in the world around them. When students educated here in the United States return to their home counties, they bring with them the knowledge and experience gained here to pass on to the people in their community. It’s this potential impact of education—on economies, policies, human welfare, and diplomatic and trade relations—that transforms the education of international students into a valuable export that can drive job and economic growth in the United States as well as abroad.

But all of these benefits depend on international students continuing to choose an education in the United States. Recent trends show that, although the numbers are increasing, the market share of international students studying in the United States is diminishing. Another highlight of IIE’s Open Doors Report was the number of international students at U.S. colleges and universities surpassing one million for the very first time. Troubling, however, was the slowing rate of growth of international students coming to the United States, dropping from 10 percent in 2014-15 to 7.1 percent in 2015-16. And these numbers were gathered well before the results of the US presidential election were known to prospective students.

The outcome of the election has greatly heightened anxiety within the international education community. Many fear that new visas restrictions will be put in place—restrictions that will directly lead to lower numbers, and more subtly, set the tone that the United States is no longer a welcoming place for international students. For the international student who wants to engage with American culture and society, maximizing their learning both on- and off-campus, the recent political discourse in our country may have already had a chilling effect. Others who are solely focused on degree completion may not be so easily deterred. In any case, it is important to remember that the market for international students is now a global one, presenting talented students with attractive options outside of the United States.

The export of education through international students is a proven way to solidify our status as a global leader and strengthen American industry and the U.S. economy, as well as those of other countries in the world. To preserve the benefits that international education has afforded us, we must reverse the current trend of a diminishing share of international students seeking a U.S. education. Finding strategic and creative ways to do this in a political environment that is increasingly insular will be challenging. If we take a measured, forward-looking approach, internationalization isn’t just the right thing, it’s the smart thing.

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About the Authors

Brad Farnsworth

Gretchen M. Bataille

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