Essay on international education initiatives and what they are missing

U.S. colleges and universities face choppy waters ahead. Navigating institutional direction these days requires not only a clear grasp of what the domestic challenges are but also demands a good global positioning system. 

Domestic challenges and global positioning intersect at the need for a steady revenue stream of fee-paying students. The past five years have seen an exponential growth in the business of recruiting international students, especially undergraduates, to U.S. campuses. The search for tuition revenue from abroad has happily converged with a rising middle class around the world that is attracted to U.S. higher education. This intersection has its risks and calls for careful steering.

Colleges and universities that view these students as principally a revenue fix and confuse their mere presence on campus with internationalization are ultimately headed for stormier seas. It’s time to check the GPS.

We’ve already heard that some campuses are experiencing problems retaining international undergraduates. This can begin with recruitment and whether exaggerated promises have been made. Setting the right direction here requires knowing what your recruiters are doing and the standards they employ.

Successful retention can be further compromised by the way international students are integrated — or not — on campus. Housing them in an international dorm completely disconnected from the center of campus life is just the wrong thing if you want happy graduates and a loyal alumni network around the world.

And, too often we hear presidents say, “We’re international, we have international students!” Really? How do those students contribute to the internationalization of your institution? If your answer is: “We have an international week every year filled with food and folk dances,” you are in big trouble. When presidents can more carefully address the question, we have moved past simple revenue production to an understanding that students from abroad are an important aspect of internationalizing a college or university. However, their presence, even a well-integrated one, is not enough.

In the U.S., we have a significant import-export gap, and it starts at the institutional level. If 20 percent of your students are international, do you send a similar percentage of your homegrown students to study abroad? If not, you should actively recalculate that quotient. Exacerbating this gap, U.S. students generally are on shorter term study abroad programs, while their international counterparts are mostly enrolled for degrees .

But study abroad alone will not be enough to declare a victory for internationalization. Why? Because while student mobility should be encouraged, it will not work for everyone. Consider that most college students no longer fit the profile of an 18- to 22-year-old residential student. A single mother attending part-time classes at a community college while holding down a 40-hour-a-week job is not going to do a semester in Bahrain. 

Colleges and universities are going to have to spend more time and energy on curriculum design to reach large numbers of such students. It really matters to ask how your students, no matter their origin, will come away with a broader and deeper sense of the world in which they will pursue their personal and professional lives. Ultimately, you have to focus on the curriculum and the faculty who are its stewards. This is the center of the map when it comes to internationalization. 

A well-tuned GPS will be all about creating an institutional learning environment that is consciously cross-national and cross-cultural. We have a term for this at the American Council on Education: comprehensive internationalization. Here is what it includes:

  • You have articulated institutional buy-in: Your mission statement and strategic plan show a commitment to global education, and there’s a road map for how you’re going to get there.
  • Senior leadership is on board with a holistic vision of connecting what may be separate international activities and, importantly, someone is assigned to wake up every morning thinking about ways to connect the dots as a core element of institutional direction.
  • Your curriculum, across disciplines and schools, reflects that you want your students to develop global competencies, whether they are majoring in East Asian studies, engineering or art.
  • Faculty members play a critical role in this work — so they are recruited and rewarded in part on their international engagement. In this domain, you may need to invest further in their global experience and development.
  • U.S.-based students are encouraged to go abroad, but also supported appropriately — whether financially or in cultural orientation. And international students, as noted above, are supported by systems too.
  • Global partnerships, an important part of the internationalization picture, are pursued thoughtfully, maintained with integrity and mutuality, tracked and evaluated on a regular basis.

Through the work that we do with many different types of colleges and universities, we have found these elements to be a winning combination. They set the GPS coordinates for deeply embedded internationalization, as opposed to one-off initiatives, and serve a wide array of institutional best interests, most importantly better outcomes for all students.

Patti McGill Peterson is presidential adviser for global initiatives at the American Council on Education.

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