Diversity In Higher Education Demands A Global Footprint That Works

Over one million international students are currently studying in the United States. While their economic contributions to this country tend to be a primary focus, they also bring cultural, political, and historical perspectives that help build vibrant, diverse campus communities.

There is tremendous diversity within the international student population at American colleges and universities, with important differences in English language ability, family income, and educational goals. Nevertheless, they are all subject to the same legal and regulatory constraints. Uncertainty over the visa application process alone is a source of great anxiety, and foreign citizenship places important restrictions on eligibility for financial aid and access to work experience. Perhaps most important of all, statements by the current administration, have sent a strong message that the United States is no longer a welcoming environment for international students and scholars.

International student enrollment has steadily declined since 2016. This decline has led some institutions to invest more heavily in marketing and recruiting. Others are beginning to think more holistically about the entire international student experience, from initial contact through alumni status. While institutions cannot change the visa policies of the U.S. government—at least not by acting individually—there is much they can do to improve the quality of the international student experience on their own campuses.

What is international education?

International education is about the mobility of students and scholars who go to another part of the world to study, research, or teach. It’s not only about the mobility of students, both in and out of the US, but it’s also about research scholars who come to the US to do research, faculty who go to other destinations to teach, and those who do community-based service learning. The primary goals of international education are furthering knowledge and cultural capital, learning about places and cultures, and gaining intercultural skills in the process.

International education has existed throughout time and, through that time, people have sought education elsewhere in order to better their lives, in order to contribute to their societies and communities, and in order to better equip themselves as citizens of their respective countries. It’s not just the US that’s been engaged in this activity; many nation states have participated in this kind of work.

What is the importance of international education, and who benefits from it?

You can think about the benefits of international education on several levels. One is international education and the benefit to the individual in pursuit of education, research, or teaching. Another way to think about it is through the nation states engaged in international education: how and why might a government decide to provide scholarships or other mechanisms encouraging citizens to acquire an education overseas? 

It may be trying to equip citizens with a level of education and knowledge so they can return and contribute to the economy or to in-demand fields in their country. International education may be a form of cultural diplomacy. Employers also have a stake in international education. Some employers incentivize their employees to go and acquire credentials elsewhere because, in this global economy, companies need a workforce with the capacity, skills, and talents to compete globally.

Why should students be encouraged to study abroad?

International education, particularly in a global economy, is a very important part of a 21st century education. In the world that we live in, no one is an island to themselves, so we need to expose students to the world out there. There are opportunities to learn from all different parts of the world. And now more than ever, isolationists are not who we want to be.

For any student to have a nuanced understanding of their field, there is value studying abroad. One, studying abroad provides you with varying perspectives on a subject matter. And two, studying abroad contextualizes international relations so that you understand the global dimensions of your work. Through international education, students are exposed to different perspectives and important nuances.

How do you study internationally during COVID-19?

The rush of colleges and universities to complete the current academic year online in response to the COVID-19 crisis, and possibly prepare hastily for the same delivery mode this coming fall, could well result in unprecedented turbulence for faculty, students and families. The unavoidable haste of implementation presents a highly uneven and potentially unsatisfying educational experience — threatening to further discredit distance learning as a viable educational platform. 

The challenge then is to identify how to deliver high-quality learning at a distance — especially if these necessary yet on-the-fly efforts run into challenges from students and their families. What type of digital learning platform will emerge from this crisis that might assuage faculty members’ lingering doubts about the medium and students’ motivational challenges with online learning?

Just today, a partnership between the American Higher Education Alliance (AHEA) and the Consortium for North American Higher Education Collaboration (CONAHEC) was announced. The partnership was established to address the needs of higher education as the world comes to grips with the impact of COVID-19. Colleges and universities are preparing for an extensive and rapid transition to online-only modes of academic interaction. The need to further develop pedagogical methods to ensure student engagement for virtual or hybrid delivery models needs to be addressed now. The disruption of international student mobility and academic exchange requires higher education to re-envision the future of international education.

Both organizations share the same core beliefs that it just made sense for us to join forces and address these challenges higher education is facing together” said Benjamin Shank, CEO of AHEA. “The pandemic has placed physical and economic limits on both institutions and students. Our partnership is to empower academic institutions and their missions, which ultimately benefits the students. We are working to establish a path for the future of higher education where global faculty collaboration results in innovative academic programs and help higher education leaders anticipate change and prepare their students for success.”

For institutions that want to strengthen their approach to international students, this means addressing the entire international student experience, from first contact through alumni status. It also means that institutions should develop their goals for international students in parallel with the development of their goals for the curriculum, co-curriculum, international partnerships, and faculty development.