Image courtesy of Getty.
Irma Becerra is president of Marymount University, a comprehensive doctoral-granting university best known for its innovative curriculum.
Last summer, university leaders across the country worked tirelessly to ensure all students could continue their studies during the global pandemic. Unfortunately, at the same time, a newly enacted national policy worked to accomplish the exact opposite for international students.
The directive banned international students from returning to a college or university that operated solely as online institutions. I immediately reached out to our international students and assured them that the national policy did not jeopardize their immigration status. I also stressed my support for them. I couldn’t have been clearer in my message: Marymount University was 100% committed to our international students and their academic success.
The policy was quickly rescinded, but not before the directive effectively accomplished a total and complete disruption to the lives of international students. According to the Wall Street Journal, the global pandemic and government policies caused a steep drop in enrollment of international students by 43% across the nation.
The global pandemic closed country borders and consulates and halted international travel on top of increasing visa and work restrictions on the optional practical training program in the U.S. Even before the pandemic, the U.S. had seen a decrease in the number of students from China and other countries.
The Benefits of International Students in Higher Education
American students benefit tremendously from a culturally diverse campus. For many of these students, friendships forged on campus are often the first contact they have with citizens from other nations. As a university president, I can assure you these friendships are priceless.
Those fortunate enough to attend university alongside international classmates gain a broader worldview and better understand the role of nuance in culture and diversity. We now live in a much smaller and highly connected world, so assimilating into a globally diverse workforce is paramount to succeed in today’s job market.
International students also bring clarity during critical discussions on crucial global issues, like the urgent need to combat climate change and issues surrounding human rights. Empathy grows among students when they understand the suffering and strife experienced by citizens of the world and gain a deeper understanding of the crucial geopolitical shifts happening worldwide, sometimes from classmates who share first-person experiences.
Beyond all the intellectual and cultural contributions international students make, their presence significantly boosts the U.S. economy. During the 2019-2020 academic year, more than 1 million international students at U.S. colleges and universities contributed $38.7 billion to the U.S. economy, according to NAFSA.
The contributions in technological advancements and innovation made by international graduate students have been remarkable. Last June, the U.S. Senate passed a $250 billion act to invest in our country’s ability to discover, build and enhance the most critical technologies of the future. This will require knowledge capital, which can be found at our universities. If international student enrollment in the U.S. continues to decline, employers in the science and engineering fields could struggle to fill these vital positions.
I find the declining number of international student applications for higher education in America today worrisome. I am particularly concerned about the long-term implications on innovation and global competitiveness.
The world is becoming increasingly diverse, so our students must learn to collaborate and communicate well to compete globally. Given that only a tiny percentage of American students opt to study abroad, the cultural value and shared experience that international students bring to campuses across the country are of significant importance.
International students from around the globe contribute to America’s scientific and technical research, bring international perspectives into U.S. classrooms, help prepare American undergraduates for global careers and can lead to longer-term business relationships and vast economic benefits.
How Universities Can Increase International Student Enrollment
Fortunately, the Biden Administration is working to establish a way forward in welcoming international students back to American campuses. As proof of their renewed commitment to international students, the federal government released a joint statement across agencies last month. “Reengaging the World to Make the United States Stronger at Home: A Renewed U.S. Commitment to International Education” reiterates why international students are essential — from an economic standpoint, not to mention the many contributions in research and innovation.
This recognition of international students and scholars is undoubtedly a move in the right direction. However, college and university leaders can do much more to reestablish trust with our existing international students and win over the generation ahead.
First and foremost, we must communicate the tremendous value of earning a college degree in the U.S. Outreach based on clear and concise communication is crucial for universities determined to win over candidates sought after by dozens of other countries worldwide.
A university website should exceed the expectations of visitors searching for the ideal U.S. college experience. Providing 360-degree photos, interactive web content and virtual tours can bring the on-campus experience alive for prospective international students and their families at a time when travel may be difficult.
Also, a robust digital presence is crucial for universities determined to attract the best and brightest in a globally competitive market. By sharing relevant and compelling content on social media venues, universities can answer questions and remain relevant for seriously interested parties.
Universities across the country intent on attracting international students willing to earn a high-quality American degree must improve and regulate the international recruiting and admissions process. In doing so, our nation’s higher education will continue to be sought after by millions of prospective international students worldwide.