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Globalization: Words and Actions

June 28, 2012

There's hardly a college worth its salt today that doesn't claim to be "global." But a report released Tuesday by the American Council on Education finds that when it comes to internationalization, some institutions' words might speak louder than their actions.

Part of the council’s Mapping Internationalization on U.S. Campuses initiative, the report assessed institutions’ internationalization efforts from 2001, 2006 and 2011 based on six criteria: strategic plans and mission statements, administrative structure and staffing, curriculum and learning outcomes, faculty policies, study abroad programs and international student support, and international collaboration and partnerships.

According to the report, which surveyed five sectors of higher education, 93 percent of doctoral institutions, 84 percent of master’s institutions, 78 percent of baccalaureate institutions and about 50 percent of associate and special-focus institutions (which award a majority of their degrees in a single field or series of related fields) reported an accelerated focus on internationalization since 2008.

And while the colleges have made quantifiable progress in several areas -- such as developing globally focused student learning outcomes, emphasizing international experience and interests in hiring faculty and offering more scholarships for students to study abroad -- in others there has been little change, and even a bit of backsliding in recent years.

"Over all, what we see are some very positive trends, and even some pleasant surprises,” said Patti McGill Peterson, the council’s presidential adviser for global initiatives, adding that 47 percent of institutions that perceived an acceleration in internationalization efforts said funding for the efforts has increased, and 27 percent of those respondents said funding has remained steady. Peterson said the statistics are “pretty phenomenal” in light of the budget constraints plaguing so many higher education institutions in recent years.

Although so many institutions perceived progress in internationalization, Lindsay Addington, senior program specialist at the council’s Center for Internationalization and Global Engagement, said the data also showed some areas of decline among the six indicators assessed. “There is not a clear positive or negative direction, but rather a mixed picture,” she said.

Addington said the report found sharp increases across all five sectors in the proportion of institutions that consider international background, experience and interest when they hire faculty members. According to the report, 68 percent of institutions take those factors into account, while only 32 percent did so in 2006. But the report also found that some of these institutions aren't putting their money where their mouth is. The percentage of institutions offering funding for professors to travel to conferences or conduct research abroad declined in 2011 -- 48 percent of institutions fund international conference travel, down from 56 percent in 2006, and 31 percent provide money for research, while 39 percent did so in 2006.

The report also found increases in the extent to which institutions were developing student learning outcomes related to their international experiences. But manifestations of these outcomes -- globally focused general education and foreign language requirements for undergraduates -- decreased across all sectors. Addington described this decrease as “one of the most concerning trends we saw,” and said that these requirements “must remain a central goal in an institution’s internationalization strategy and process.”

Only a limited number of institutions engage in international partnerships and collaborations, Addington said. According to the report, 27 percent of institutions surveyed operated joint, dual or double degree programs with overseas partners in which home-campus students can enroll, and institutions offering these collaborative programs are largely doctoral and master’s ones.

International Collaborative Programs, by Sector

That was one of the many areas in which there was a large (and in many cases growing) gap between doctoral institutions and other sectors, with associate institutions -- which tend to have fewer resources -- lagging, even if they are gaining some ground.

Of the institutions that reported acceleration of internationalization in recent years, associate institutions were the most likely to have begun international partnerships for the first time. But, as can be seen in this figure, which shows a breakdown of international collaborative programs by sector, associate institutions still fall far behind doctoral and master’s institutions.

Peterson said administrators still must devise a way to connect two-year-college students, many of whom are bound to their home campuses by time and monetary constraints, to the rest of the world. She said the familiar model for introducing students to global perspectives -- through general education requirements and a study abroad opportunity -- isn’t applicable for most two-year students.

She said that the widening gap between internationalization at doctoral and associate institutions is a legitimate concern. “We’re going to have to think of new models – new ways to deliver global learning outcomes for all kinds of different students and different kinds of institutions.”

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