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Late one evening, I heard my young son talking in the basement and went down to see which of his high school friends were visiting us at that hour. I discovered he was talking to friends, just not geographically proximal ones. He was playing a video game and was online talking to fellow players from across the globe -- an example of globalization truly brought home.

A decade has passed since I discovered my son’s fledgling international network. During that time, globalization has made geography less and less relevant to the formation of friends, support networks, business operations and career development. Those radical transformations demand that 21st-century college degrees provide students with the knowledge and skills required to live and work in a global society. They also force a question: How can U.S. colleges claim to prepare graduates for a global economy when those students have rarely if ever met, much less worked with, students from other cultures and countries on class projects and teams?

Our current political context and its threads to the past add weight to this question. We live in an era of wall building, Muslim bans and “America First” attitudes that close our borders -- literally and figuratively. These are old attitudes masquerading in new policies. Long before the current anti-immigrant actions, our forefathers tried to keep out the Germans -- then the Chinese, southern Europeans and post-World War II Jews, among many others.

When most of us peer back at these events (and I’d argue we too seldom look), they leave us aghast. We see them now as the xenophobic policies they were. On a moral level, those exclusionary tactics were wrong, but had they continued, they also could have cost us economically and culturally. If they had persisted, John Steinbeck might not be considered a great American author, the J. F. Kennedy Presidential Library might not be the architectural feat it is and many young women might still believe girls cannot code.

The reality is the opportunity to learn with and from foreign people is so great that internationalization of campuses is no longer a nice thing to do. It is, in fact, necessary to provide a quality education and prepare students to compete in a war for talent that is global. Without the opportunity to live and learn with students from diverse cultures and countries, graduates will be ill prepared to compete for jobs that require a new kind of worker.

We know that graduates face a new reality in the job market. More than two-thirds of all new and replacement jobs in the future will require a college credential. We also know that with the advancement of automation and artificial intelligence, more than $15 trillion worth of jobs are vulnerable to elimination or radical transformation; those that will be left will require higher-level thinking and socio-emotional competencies.

What is also true is that more and more of those jobs will need networking and teaming with people from diverse cultures and countries. Unless our colleges transform into global communities of learners, their degrees will be inadequate to the challenges graduates will face in the 21st-century global economy. Economically disadvantaged students in the United States need this experience the most. Many, like multiple students I worked with while at colleges in Kentucky, have never left their county, much less their country.

Yet in the 2016-17 academic year, international students made up only 5.3 percent of the higher education population in the United States. Current downward trends in international enrollment threaten even that number. Data announced today in the most recent Open Doors report show that new international enrollments decreased by 6.6 percent in fall 2017 compared to the previous year, the second year of declines in new enrollments. Domestic diversity numbers are not much better, with continued underrepresentation of African American and Hispanic students as well as students from low-income families. While the percentage of underrepresented high school students attending college has increased some since the 1970s, a very homogenous picture of today’s college population and an even whiter, wealthier, picture of college graduates emerge from the data.

What can college and university leaders do?

The first important step for colleges is to raise the bar on internationalization. This includes recruitment of more students from a diverse set of countries (not just from China). It also means expanding opportunities for domestic students and faculty to live and study abroad -- focusing perhaps on the countries from which international students are being recruited, thereby creating a virtuous cycle of intercultural understanding. Without at least 10 to 15 percent of students being international, colleges cannot hope to hit the tipping point for globalization that ensures all domestic students are interculturally engaged.

The numbers are not the whole story, of course. Institutions must redesign campus life, curriculum, classes and student supports to ensure the successful integration of international and domestic students. Shoving international students into a separate dorm is not a great first step. But, at the same time, simply putting people with differences into a common space without structured, strategic efforts to promote constructive dialogue and activities can actually worsen stereotypes and bigotry on all sides.

Colleges that truly care about their students must commit to globally competent graduates and the internationalization strategies that requires. Only through intentional internationalization and integration can they help students learn how to communicate effectively across cultural differences, accomplish shared goals as a team and expand their understanding and respect for different worldviews. These are the outcomes that define a strong liberal education -- one that will prepare students for the accelerated pace of change they will confront upon graduation.

Taking this path will mean swimming upstream in the current U.S. political climate. But we must put our students first and position ourselves well to accelerate necessary internationalization when the currents shift. Our students require and deserve it, not only for their economic well-being but also to function as open and ethical citizens in a global society. Our country needs it, as well, if it is ultimately to win the talent war that is raging globally. If we shrink from this responsibility, we join the long list of silent collaborators with narrow nationalist interests whom history has judged so harshly.

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