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The U.S. Departments of Education and State issued a joint statement of principles Monday articulating “a renewed U.S. commitment to international education.”
The agencies committed to “participate in a coordinated national approach to international education, including study in the United States by international students, researchers and scholars; study abroad for Americans; international research collaboration; and the internationalization of U.S. campuses and classrooms.”
The statement also included a commitment to “implement policies, procedures and protocols so as to facilitate international education and authorized practical experiences while promoting program integrity and protecting national security.” The term “authorized practical experiences” refers to the curricular practical training (CPT) and optional practical training (OPT) programs, both of which allow international students to gain work experience in the U.S.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the joint statement, which is also supported by the Departments of Commerce and Homeland Security, “underscores our commitment to working across our government and with partners in higher education, the private sector, civil society and other sectors to keep promoting international education in the United States. If we work together, I’m confident that we’ll not only return to the pre-pandemic levels of international students in American institutions of higher education, but surpass them.”
The statement of support for international education from the Biden administration comes after four years in which the sector found itself in frequent battles with the Trump administration over travel and visa policies.
Although the statement was short on specific policy plans, international education groups welcomed the show of support from the Biden administration and the promise of greater interagency coordination, which leaders in the field have long called for.
Experts on international education say it’s been more than 20 years since the federal government issued a similar statement. Former president Bill Clinton issued a policy memorandum in April 2000, his last year in office, directing the vice president to coordinate the U.S. government’s international education strategy.
Miriam Feldblum, co-founder and executive director of the Presidents Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, an organization of college leaders focused on the intersection of higher education and immigration policy, described the new statement as “a crucial step along the road to create a national strategy for international student recruitment and retention.
“In this statement there are echoes of what we’ve been asking the Biden-Harris administration since the transition to start articulating,” Feldblum said. “It did not stop with a vague commitment to international education and international students. It was specific about the importance of OPT, about the importance of retention, about the impact to the economy on innovation, on communities.”
“We take this seriously,” she added. “We think that it’s the beginning of some really important conversations and action.”
Jill Allen Murray, deputy executive director for public policy for NAFSA: Association of International Educators, was also enthusiastic about the joint statement.
"We have been recommending that the administration take on something such as this in the form of both an international student recruitment strategy as well as a national strategy on Americans studying abroad, so we’re quite pleased to see it," she said.
NAFSA has published detailed policy recommendations that could be included in an international education strategy.
"We think there's terrific opportunity to move into a specific articulation of what the goals ought to be with such a strategy," Murray said. "We would say the government should establish specific enrollment targets and seek to attract a more diverse pool of students from countries and regions around the world."
The international education sector has been badly battered by the COVID-19 pandemic. A survey last fall found that the total number of international students at U.S. colleges declined by 16 percent, and the number of new international students by a whopping 43 percent, from fall 2019 to fall 2020.
Study abroad participation also fell dramatically, with many institutions suspending or sharpy curtailing their offerings in the 2020-21 academic year following what was an unprecedented effort by colleges and study abroad providers to recall students who were abroad when the pandemic began in spring 2020.
The statement of principles describes a commitment to “incorporate a strong focus on international education as part of the nation’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic in order to build back better at home, maintain U.S. global leadership and promote equitable access to the benefits of international education.”
The statement emphasizes equity and includes a commitment to “encourage U.S. students, researchers, scholars and educators who reflect the diversity of the U.S. population to pursue overseas study, internships, research and other international experiences.” It also articulates a commitment to expand access to international education, including through the use of technology.
Finally, the statement gestures to rising concerns from Washington in recent years about theft of federally funded research by foreign competitors, describing a need to “foster increased cooperation among the federal government, the private sector, and educational institutions so as to maintain the integrity of federally-funded and protected intellectual property and research endeavors from undue foreign influence and unlawful acquisition.”
Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, said the joint statement "represents a critical step forward for international education and academic collaboration. Clearly signaling the U.S. is committed to international education is key to cementing our position as the top destination for the world’s brightest students, educators, and researchers."
"We look forward to working with the administration to advance policies that reflect these principles," McPherson said in a written statement. "We continue to urge policymakers to advance a national strategy for attracting international students. Cultivating and harnessing the talents of international students, educators, and researchers is essential for preparing U.S. students for globalized job market and promoting U.S. economic competitiveness. We’re very pleased to see the U.S. government’s strong commitment to international education and academic collaboration."