Supporting International Education during a Global Crisis
Updated: Apr 30, 2023
COVID-19 has created a worldwide storm of difficulties, from threats to the health and safety of individuals to a cascade of far-reaching effects, such as product shortages, supply chain disruptions, economic uncertainty, and social isolation. Not surprisingly, higher education has been significantly impacted. An especially unfortunate casualty is a decline in the number of international programs. When the pandemic hit, international enrollments fell to 2013/14 levels, creating tremendous pressure on decision-makers to act—often hastily—to minimize damage to the bottom line. As a result, many programs were severely downsized or even permanently shuttered.
In uncertain times like these, it is especially important for university administrators to step back, consider the long view, and take steps that serve to promote and sustain international programs. What is needed as a basis for responsible action is a holistic understanding of the value of international education and an appreciation of the viability of international programs over the long-term.
Consider first the trends in enrollment. In the first two decades of the 21 st century, the number of international students studying in U.S universities doubled, from 500,000 in 2000 to over 1,000,000 by 2020. This growth occurred notwithstanding the terrorist attacks of 9-11, the stock market crash of 2008, fluctuations in the value of the dollar, and several global health challenges. Now, as we begin to emerge from the pandemic we should remember, and be heartened by, this historical lesson: International enrollments always rebound.
Consider next the bottom line. The real ‘bottom line’ extends far beyond the boundaries of universities. Before the pandemic, international students were contributing in excess of $40 billion annually to the U.S. economy. Moreover, the financial impact exceeds the students’ direct contributions and their multiplying effects. Internationalization drives research, innovation and technology transfer. It advances political and economic policies. It adds jobs. It increases local, regional, and national global competitiveness.
Finally, consider benefits other than the strictly economic. International students develop cross-cultural understanding and critical thinking skills. Studying abroad provides future leaders the tools to meet the challenges of an increasingly interdependent world. International scholars and researchers collaborate, and form lasting bonds, accelerating advancement in their fields. While these effects are not easily quantifiable, they are deeply consequential.
International programs should be embraced and strengthened, not eliminated. Enrollments will return and so will the bottom line. In addition to the benefits already mentioned, international education brings diversity, understanding, and inclusion. Ultimately, it brings us closer as human beings and makes us stronger together.