US: New funding models for international education

One year ago, in a speech to American international education leaders in Washington DC, Chancellor Nancy Zimpher (pictured) of the State University of New York argued that presidents, chancellors and senior administrators cannot simply talk about making their campuses more internationalised - they must do something. She said: "Rhetoric is not going to get it done. We have to commit ourselves, we have to hold ourselves to public action."

In the year since her speech, we at SUNY have been moving toward an approach we call 'performance-based reinvestment', which is designed to create the financial resources needed to achieve sweeping internationalisation goals. And we have developed tools that we hope will assist other American institutions of higher education to also meet their potential. This approach and these tools can be effective even as budgets are slashed.

It is particularly timely that this approach be shared now, given the administration's recently announced '100,000 Strong Initiative' and Obama's call in his State of the Union address to reform immigration laws so that the US retains talented and responsible foreign graduates of its colleges and universities.

With these calls, the Obama administration is clearly signalling the need for an aggressive posture both on the outbound and inbound sides of the international education equation.

The dilemma

As Zimpher observed last year, many college and university presidents have made it a standard part of their talking points to set increasing targets for study abroad, faculty international engagement and curricular internationalisation.

While those of us charged with achieving these international objectives applaud this increased attention to the importance of internationalisation, many of us also note that in this economic environment the rhetoric is rarely matched by the budget to achieve these lofty goals. In fact, in many cases our international budgets are simultaneously being cut, even as ever-higher objectives are set.

With diminished resources and increasing expectations, is it better for international officers to encourage institutional leadership to pull back? In essence, to reduce expectations? We think not. Far better would be to persuade campus leadership to adopt a new approach that will increase our capacity to achieve the objectives that have been so publicly and repeatedly advocated, by both campus and national leaders.

But to do this we need entirely new sources of funds; ideally, funds that are sustainable and within our ability to nurture and grow. The approach being pursued by SUNY is intended to break the shackles of diminished resources and expectations.

SUNY's approach: Performance-based reinvestment

The United States remains the most desired destination for international students, and demand for international education continues to grow at a high rate. Yet despite the large numbers of international students on US shores, these students comprise less than 4% of our total enrolment in higher education.

Furthermore, although overall enrolment is currently at a national high water mark, all projections show looming declines in domestic enrolment, as the current demographic bulge moves through the system and the economy improves - both of which are inevitable over the next two to four years. In other words, we must anticipate increasing absorptive capacity at many US institutions.

We must strategically tap into this market to both internationalise our campuses and provide the financial resources to achieve our objectives. It is critical to create a 'virtuous circle', connecting new income associated with international student tuition with the other imperatives of internationalisation, ie study abroad scholarships, faculty internationalisation grants, scholars-at-risk funding, international services infrastructure, etc.

Showing your institution the way

The capacity building model we are advocating requires two things. First, senior university administrators must admit that their rhetoric is not currently matched with adequate funding. Second, they must agree to make international student recruitment a priority, but that it must be linked to the other key internationalisation goals. In other words re-invest some negotiated quantum of that new, 'found' revenue into the areas mentioned above.

It is time to put their money where their mouth is - and the strategy we outline here can help them do so.

SUNY has developed a simple forecasting model - a tool - that provides institutions with the means to make a compelling case for internal change. It allows administrators to demonstrate in concrete numbers how goals and allocations affect each other, and the desired outcomes.

Using this model, leaders can demonstrate the advantages of redirecting some percentage of incoming international tuition revenue back toward international operations holistically. It is up to each institution to determine how these funds would be allocated among its various priorities, be they study abroad scholarships, faculty internationalisation grants, programme subsidies, or professional development and administrative support systems.

At SUNY we believe that with our tuition structure a 'sweep' of about 18% of the first year's international student tuition will be sufficient to meet very ambitious internationalisation goals. At your institution, the percentage may be less or more.

One thing is certain, however: much can be done with even a remarkably small 'sweep'. The forecasting model we have developed has allowed SUNY to test our recruiting assumptions against our core internationalisation capacity objectives. Other institutions can do the same.

We encourage all colleges and universities to explore your own opportunities using this tool. Even small numbers can create meaningful impacts at small institutions; five new study abroad scholarships per year as a result of this strategy means five lives changed. However we believe that, in most cases, the benefits can be far more significant than just a few scholarships.

Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have issued a challenge with the '100,000 Strong Initiative', asking us to dramatically increase study abroad to China, yet providing no tangible funding sources beyond the suggestion that it be found by us in the private sector.

How better to fund initiatives such as this one, than through revenue generated by incoming international student tuition revenue, which is, in fact, private sector-based?

Time for action, from the top and from below

Now is the time for American colleges and universities to make the case for a more coherent national policy toward the export of US higher education services, and the recruitment of international students as a key component of that export trade.

There must be a rational discussion among key government agencies, including the Department of State, the Department of Commerce and the Department of Education, as well as leading educational associations and bodies such as NAFSA, IIE, AIEA, APLU, ACE, AIRC, the College Board and others. Now is the time for a summit designed to chart a new direction.

But institutions should not wait for the summit. They can start at home, with their own institution. Now. They can share their successes and frustrations as they work toward a common goal of becoming the most internationalised system of higher education in the world, providing opportunities for all students to obtain the international experiences that they need to become productive members of the global workforce.

SUNY's forecasting model is designed to allow all types of institutions - small and large, public and private - to concretely demonstrate how the changes advocated here can produce positive, tangible capacity improvements in a very short time. The model can be downloaded here.

* Mitch Leventhal is Vice-chancellor for Global Affairs at the State University of New York (SUNY). A version of this article was sent to members of the Association of International Education Administrators earlier this year. The AIEA holds its annual conference from 20-23 February.