US universities told to treat international students better

End of Trump and Covid not enough to revive foreign interest, main university group says

February 12, 2021
Two female graduates taking a photograph
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US higher education leaders are warning institutions that declines in international student enrolment will persist beyond the Trump and Covid eras if they do not find ways to provide a more genuinely welcoming and attentive environment.

Overseas student recruitment slid to decades-old lows during the Trump administration, then plummeted during global coronavirus lockdowns, devastating campus budgets and kindling hopes that Biden administration policy reversals will correct the trend.

Yet the main US higher education membership group, the American Council on Education, is now warning its colleges and universities that they too need to make some significant changes in the way they operate.

“To move forward,” ACE is telling its members, “we must acknowledge that, too often, there has been a gap between rhetoric and reality in the international student experience.”

The tough advice comes in the form of a 78-page monograph largely produced by ACE staff that proposes campus-wide adjustments in attitudes to treat international students as integral and valued community members, and offers comprehensive, specific suggestions for making that happen.

The ideas hinge on the notion of giving overseas students the same amount of energy and consideration – if not more – that is provided to domestic students.

Its numerous examples include recognising and responding to student financial and cultural barriers, teaching professors to include international situations and references in classwork, and creating post-graduation alumni networking and services.

Robin Helms, one of the report’s authors and assistant vice-president for learning and engagement at ACE, said US universities already know that they are competing for foreign students with an increasing number of high-quality college options in other countries.

But the report reflects a concern that US institutions and their staff have not necessarily figured out the concrete steps they should be taking to be more welcoming.

US colleges had been enrolling about 1 million overseas students a year at the beginning of the Trump administration, or about 5 per cent of their total attendance, while typically charging them more than twice as much as the average US national.

Amid former president Donald Trump’s anti-foreigner antagonisms, their international enrolment numbers hit lows not seen in six decades, other than the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Then, with the pandemic, new foreign student enrolment dropped 43 per cent in one year.

Despite the far higher tuition rates that US colleges and universities charge foreigners, the ACE report makes no suggestion of adjustments in prices. Instead, Dr Helms said, the council emphasises the need to give foreign students better value for their money.

That means “supporting them commensurately with what we’re asking them to bring”, Dr Helms said.

“We as a higher education community, and as institutions, need to make sure that we live up to our end of the bargain when it comes to international students who join our communities, and are paying tuition,” she said.

The general message of the ACE initiative seemed warranted, said Miriam Feldblum, executive director of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration. While she hadn’t yet seen the publication, Dr Feldblum said that many faculty and staff clearly would benefit from tips and guidance for better serving international students.

Jill Allen Murray, deputy executive director for public policy at Nafsa, which represents foreign student advisers, agreed on the need to share advice. “Local initiatives can only take our country so far,” she said.

The question of tuition fee rates, however, may need revisiting in some areas, said Dr Feldblum, whose group represents some 500 presidents and chancellors of public and private US colleges and universities.

It’s a misconception that foreign students necessarily come from wealth, Dr Feldblum said. “With regard to public institutions and the way that international students are charged even more than out-of-state residents, I think that certainly is a conversation to have,” she said.

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