Despite current challenges in the international education scene, the US continues to be one of the top study destinations for foreign students. And with good reason. Immigration sentiment is upbeat with the new Biden administration while the ongoing vaccination initiatives have created a sense of optimism that the light at the end of the tunnel is beginning to shine just a little brighter.
Despite this, however, new host countries are stepping up their game to attract more learners, such as Canada and the UK.
Poring over the US international education strategy, I see that individual colleges are putting a lot of effort into implementing their own recruitment strategies. But the truth is that for the whole country to retain its top destination status and remain the top study country of choice in the years ahead, we would need a coordinated national approach that will encourage more foreign students to pursue an education in the US.
The Need for a National Approach
The decline in international enrollment numbers continues to drive institutions to come up with new ways to attract more foreign learners. But oftentimes, wide-ranging and multipronged reforms will help more than the individual measures that schools implement.
Hence, higher education officials are pushing for the initiative to come from the government. Recognizing the huge contribution of the international student market in the economy, some countries have put in place national strategies to keep their student recruitment initiatives on track and maintain the huge economic input of international education.
I have discussed quite a few times in the past the truth that foreign learners are and can be the source of a huge portion of revenues for colleges and universities especially for small and medium sized colleges and universities and, without them, there will be bigger challenges for host countries. According to a NAFSA report, international students contribute nearly $41 billion to the US economy. International students’ spending supported more than 458,290 jobs during the 2018-2019 academic year. This means three jobs are created or supported for every seven international students in the United States.
Given the students’ important role in propping up the US economy, it is only right for governments to not only try to attract foreign learners but also protect them and push for initiatives that will help them get the most from their higher education experience in the US once they are enrolled.
What Reforms Do We Need?
Before the pandemic, universities and colleges typically relied on their recruitment initiatives to reach prospective international students. However, the global health crisis paralyzed almost all industries including the education sector.
At this point, many think that their marketing efforts have gone futile as the travel restrictions and strict quarantine protocols intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have in turn become a major hindrance for foreign students who want to enroll and physically attend classes in their academic destination-country of choice.
Due to the enormous hardships encountered by international students last year, institutions figured that adjustments must originate from the government as it is the only way they can help learners come into the country amid the present difficult situation.
In a survey conducted by Quacquarelli Symonds, HEIs were asked what kind of adjustments should the governments take to help international students during the pandemic.
Source: Quacquarelli Symonds
HEI officials believe that the adjustment of government protocols relevant to travel, quarantine, and visas will help attract more students to engage in international education and enroll amid the pandemic.
Apart from addressing the concerns on travel and quarantine procedures, among the regarded actions by HEIs are some permanent strategies that will be helpful not only at the time of the pandemic but beyond.
Now, let’s break down the aforementioned factors and see how the US can implement these and strengthen its programs to make them more appealing to prospective international students.
- The Road to Becoming a Permanent Resident or Citizen
We know the US has long established a strict system for gaining American citizenship. But when we think of it, a lot of international students no longer look forward to achieving this as they are well aware that the process is long and tedious, and getting an American education is not enough for them to qualify even for a permanent residency.
This can sometimes be a deal-breaker for potential international enrollees.
Let’s look at American neighbor Canada. The country continues to appeal to more foreign learners as it appears that the study experience there is driven to become a path to becoming a citizen.
They capitalize on the immigration dream as many international students also aspire to work and live in their chosen study destinations. Hence, seeing that governments of other countries are promoting study-to-residency pathways, students naturally gravitate to destinations like Canada. On this note, the US should also revisit its approaches to international education and assess whether opening more pathways to permanent residency through studies is feasible. Attracting the brightest of other countries can only enhance the American lead among world nations.
- Post-Study Work Visas
While not all international students would want to immigrate to their host countries, definitely the majority of them aspire to gain work experience before they return to their homeland. The US has the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program for that purpose, although we are aware that the Trump administration tried to terminate the program.
When foreign students choose a country where they will pursue overseas education, they take into consideration all the benefits they can get from it. And most often, gaining work experience immediately after graduation is among the things they look forward to.
Sometimes they even feel betrayed when they find out that after spending years of study in the US, they will not even be able to benefit from post-study work programs like the OPT. Many of these students believe that the investment they put into hefty tuition and other fees deserves some reward in the form of post-graduate employment.
The good news is that the Biden government has proposed making it easier for international students with advanced degrees in STEM fields to receive work visas and apply for permanent residency. If successful, Biden would enable the US to retain a greater number of STEM workers who are critical for continued economic growth.
The government should certainly push for these programs as the US also benefits from the international students who later on became part of the country’s human resources. In fact, nearly 25% of billion-dollar startup companies had a founder who first arrived in the US as an international student. STEM products and services are the focus of many of these companies, which generate an average of 1,200 new jobs each.
- Vaccination Program for International Students
We all know that COVID-19 is the cause of the disruption in international education. Many of the policies that have been detrimental to student recruitment were implemented because of a need to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.
Now that the government’s vaccination program is in full swing despite initial challenges, it would do well for the international education sector to also have its own vaccination program aimed at students–both domestic and international. But HEIs cannot do this without a government mandate, in terms of vaccine supply and vaccination logistics.
One thing is for sure, though. If the government implements a vaccination program aimed at international students, many young people coming from countries that do not have enough vaccines or have ineffective inoculation programs will be more likely to come to get the vaccine and make it safer for them to attend face-to-face classes.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Yale historian Paul Kennedy in his book ‘The Rise and Fall of Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000,’ which was published 35 years ago argued that closing off borders to new immigrants expedited the decline of many great powers in history. He stated that as great powers of the world stretched their resources and became vulnerable, they started to shut down their borders to fresh labor and minds and as a result their collapse was accelerated. As a famous statement goes, history repeats itself. However, we might have an opportunity to negate this possibility.
In the case of the United States, the policy of admitting international students will contribute to a thriving economy and will keep American economy growing with an influx of new and fresh minds, not mentioning the overall contribution to the world economy as many of these students go back to their home countries and become productive members of their communities.
In fact, many famous world leaders happened to have studied in the United States, such as Margaret Thatcher, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom; Shinzo Abe, former Prime Minister of Japan; Syngman Rhee, South Korea’s first president; Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary General; and even the current King of Jordan Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein, just to name a few.
Given this and recognizing the huge impact of ensuring that foreign learners are welcome to study in the United States, we have all the reasons to push for initiatives that will attract more talented students to come into the country. And encouraging them to enroll in US institutions is only one thing, we must also help them overcome the hurdles brought about by the present global health crisis.
Then after the pandemic, we can achieve more progress in setting a more welcoming environment for international students. As for the new leadership, it can take a host of additional actions to improve the reputation of the United States as a top education destination.
When the pandemic eases, the administration can prioritize student visa processing and interviews at consular offices and increase staffing resources for visa processing. It can also assign a committee that will work to ensure that the higher education community can collaborate with the agency on policy matters affecting international students.
The pandemic has truly created a global barrier to international students enrolling at US colleges and universities but we can retune our stance toward students from across the globe. Being currently the top study destination even during the health crisis, the US should not lose its appeal as we need to be ready for the post-pandemic period and look forward to a sharp rebound in the number of international students choosing to study in our institutions. (DR. ALEX PARNIA)
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Dr. Alex Parnia brings more than 35 years of experience performing a variety of successful roles at various academic institutions as a faculty member, campus Dean, Vice-President of Marketing and Enrollment, Executive Vice- President, Provost, and President.
He specializes in crafting innovative and scalable solutions and matrices to enable exponential revenue increases for academic institutions.
His list of commendable triumphs is never-ending and he has also created leadership programs and taught management and business courses at various academic institutions.
Berger, D., Yale-Loehr, S., Hindle, E., & Lee, H. (2021, January 27). 4 ways the Biden administration can improve the employment-based immigration system without Congress. Retrieved March 01, 2021, from https://www.brookings.edu/research/4-ways-the-biden-administration-can-improve-the-employment-based-immigration-system-without-congress/
Di Maria, D. L. (2021, February 11). 5 ways the Biden administration may help stem the loss of international students. Retrieved March 01, 2021, from https://theconversation.com/5-ways-the-biden-administration-may-help-stem-the-loss-of-international-students-153779
McPherson, M. (2021, February 01). Why we need a national strategy for attracting international students. Retrieved March 01, 2021, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/petermcpherson/2021/02/01/why-we-need-a-national-strategy-for-attracting-international-students/?sh=4b98f8137dbc