The Enduring Importance of International Education: Six Key Takeaways from a WES Social Media Forum

The Enduring Importance of International Education Lead Image: College student studying remotely [1]

Persistent upheaval and unpredictable change have come to define international education in 2020, leaving both students and higher education institutions uncertain about the coming year. A dizzying succession of developments—unexpected policy changes, surges in coronavirus, inconsistent messaging from government officials, and international border closures—have worked together to derail international education in the United States and point to a turbulent year ahead.

International students are critical to the U.S. economy, however, in terms of both their talent and their spending. Staying abreast of the latest developments along with sharing insights on how best to support international students is critical to international education experts, organizations, and academic institutions.

On July 29, World Education Services (WES) hosted a Twitter chat [2] to explore the issues and trends currently shaping international higher education in the U.S. Using the hashtag #IntlEdNow [3], participants discussed how a variety of factors—from COVID-19 to the U.S. political and regulatory climate—have changed prospective international students’ perceptions of the U.S. The chat also explored what can be done to support and advocate on behalf of international students now and in the future.

International students will be essential to the nation’s recovery. They play a vital role in the U.S. economy and society, and in the country’s colleges and universities. The U.S. Department of Commerce estimates [4] that international students contributed around $45 billion to the economy and supported roughly 455,000 jobs during the 2017/18 academic year. Former international students have also played an outsize role in maintaining the country’s entrepreneurial edge. According to an October 2018 National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP) brief [5], almost a quarter of U.S. start-ups valued at $1 billion or more were founded by former international students.

Although the tuition fees and entrepreneurial contributions of international students will be critical as the U.S. economy recovers, participants were clear-eyed about the challenges that lie ahead. Some of the top takeaways from the Twitter chat focused on the macro-factors that may influence student plans for 2021/22 and beyond:

  1. International students face many barriers to studying in, working in, and contributing to the U.S. Meaningful visa policy reform is needed to remove these obstacles.

  1. The outcome of the presidential election in November will be key to the future of international education in the U.S.

But domestic issues aren’t the only danger to international student flows. Growing tensions between the U.S. and China threaten to disrupt mobility from the largest source country of international students in the U.S. Executive orders have targeted Chinese students and organizations by rescinding the visas of students affiliated with China’s military establishment [21], suspending the Fulbright exchange program with China [22], and, most recently, by banning WeChat [23], a popular app students from China use to stay in touch with their families back home.

The Enduring Importance of International Education Image 1: Bar chart showing the top five sending countries of international students [24]

Our Twitter chat participants noted the significance of these tensions to Chinese international students:

  1. Deteriorating relations between the U.S. and China have had a notable impact on international students’ perceptions of the U.S. Heightened tensions between the two countries have put international students on the front lines of this escalating political battle.

These factors, along with a disjointed U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic, international travel restrictions, limited visa processing services, and restrictive policy changes, threaten to drastically lower international enrollment. WES research [32] finds that roughly three-fourths of international education professionals at U.S. colleges and universities expect international student enrollment to decline in the 2020/21 academic year. Anticipating other COVID-19-related challenges along with revenue losses from lower international enrollment—international students contribute an estimated $20 billion in tuition and other fees [33] each year—institutions are implementing drastic cost-saving measures, including laying off tenured faculty [34].

The Enduring Importance of International Education Image 2: Bar chart showing anticipated change in enrollment among higher education professionals [35]

The good news is the appeal of a U.S. education remains strong internationally. And despite recent visa policy changes, the U.S. political climate may not be entirely inhospitable to positive student visa reform. Participants expressed several reasons for optimism:

  1. Despite the odds, many international students still want to pursue a U.S. education.

  1. There is bipartisan support in Congress for OPT and CPT, which enable international students to work and contribute to the U.S. during and after their studies.

But action is still needed. Twitter chat participants agreed that the challenges require a coordinated response on the part of international education organizations, higher education institutions, and employers. Recent events neatly illustrate the effectiveness of that strategy. A lawsuit filed by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was supported by hundreds of academic institutions [45] and international education organizations across the country, as well as some of the largest technology companies [46] in the U.S., such as Google. The lawsuit challenged the Trump administration’s July 6 directive requiring international students to leave the country if their coursework would be entirely online. The coordinated opposition prompted the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to partially rescind the order, a move that mitigated its impact on international students. A chorus of voices laid out what needs to be done:

  1. Advocacy via coalition-building is vital. Higher education institutions and like-minded organizations must come together to represent international students’ needs and help elected officials and the public recognize the value that international students add to the nation’s economy, international relations, and society. There is also a greater need for higher education institutions to collaborate with companies and start-ups in Silicon Valley to support OPT opportunities for international students.

With the start of the fall semester rapidly approaching, collaboration and advocacy are more urgent than ever. Such collaboration will require up-to-date insight into the most important developments impacting international education in the U.S. We look forward to continuing that conversation with international students and their advocates.

We acknowledge the following organizations and higher education institutions which participated in our recent Twitter chat and helped to make it a success:

Participating organizations:

Individuals from the following organizations and higher education institutions also participated:

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of World Education Services (WES).