Trump victory would deter international students, NAFSA told

A contentious climate on Capitol Hill poses challenges for anyone’s policy agenda in the United States this year. But the 2016 election season is further complicating the goals of advocates for global learning, who gathered last week in Denver in the US for the 68th annual conference of NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

While most of the gridlock in Washington can be blamed on a polarised Congress, the campaign platform of presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump has heightened hostility around immigration reform, a major issue for the organisation. Trump has said he wants to build a wall between the United States and Mexico, and to bar Muslims from entering the United States.

Conference organisers argue that the importance of international education – through academic exchange, institutional partnerships and collaborative faculty research – should be treated with urgency, in part because it overlaps with the goals of national security and prosperity.

“It’s bipartisan. It’s non-partisan,” said Rachel Banks, director of public policy for NAFSA, which also calls for increased funding for academic exchanges and this year is pushing to lift the trade embargo on Cuba. “Regardless of who wins [the presidency], this needs to be a national priority.”

The Barack Obama administration has championed international education during his years in office, launching a study abroad office within the US State Department, and opening up opportunities for academic partnership in Cuba.

Results of a survey released during the conference suggest that a Trump presidency could reverse the annual record-breaking gains in international student enrolments at US universities over the last decade. Each year, international students pump billions of dollars into the nation’s economy, NAFSA research shows.

Among the more than 40,000 prospective international students from 118 countries who responded to the survey, 60% said they would be less likely to enrol in a US college if Trump became president. About 4% said the same for Hillary Clinton, and 5% for Bernie Sanders, the Democratic contenders.

Findings were released by Intead, a global higher education marketing firm, and FFPEDUMedia, which runs student-recruitment fairs around the world.

Showing more promise is the push by NAFSA membership to expand and diversify the population of US students who spend part of their college education overseas.

Educators for years have lamented that the numbers are far too low: Just 10% of US students go abroad for any length of time during their college years, according to data collected by the Institute of International Education, or IIE, a US non-profit that tracks student mobility.

IIE has launched a campaign called Generation Study Abroad aimed at motivating colleges and universities to raise awareness, both across the campus and into the community, of the value of an overseas experience for all students, not just those who have an itch to go abroad.

NAFSA on Tuesday released findings suggesting that seed money in the form of competitive grants to institutions may be the most effective way to achieve that.

Its pilot study, involving federal initiatives to increase exchanges in China, France and Latin America, found that institutions receiving grants ranging from US$20,000 to US$60,000 not only increased the number of US students going abroad as part of their education, but also kept the momentum going long after the funding ended.

As an added bonus, about a third of those applicants who did not receive the grant went ahead and carried out the proposal they developed for the competition anyway.

The grant project grew out of a 2003 NAFSA task force report urging colleges and universities to remove institutional, cultural and curricular barriers that make it harder for students to participate in overseas programmes.

First-generation college students may not be aware that study abroad is an option, for example, and engineering students typically have little flexibility in their schedules to participate in study abroad unless it is built into their academic programme.

While the traditional approach to boosting study abroad has been to provide financial aid directly to students, the seed grants serve as leverage that allows universities to build capacity for sustainable programmes. The University of North Alabama parlayed its US$20,000 grant into more than US$80,000 by challenging the president’s office, academic departments and the local community to provide matching funds.

In Pennsylvania, Northampton Community College developed a two-credit course for students in its heating and air conditioning programme that included time spent building a wind turbine in Peru. Participating students and professors later shared their experiences during a dinner and fundraiser that featured Peruvian and American cuisine.

Growing attention to global rankings was a motivating factor for the University of Arkansas. “What gets a university to the top of those rankings? Really, the common denominator is that you have to be involved in international education,” said DeDe Long, the university’s director of study abroad and international exchange.

She used the seed grant to stimulate ideas and support among faculty, and has since hired a graduate assistant to help manage the increased workload.

NAFSA plans to share the findings on Capitol Hill to garner legislative support for the concept. “We now, for the first time, have research to show that if you want to move the needle on study abroad, this kind of model is the way to go,” said Jill Welch, NAFSA’s deputy executive director for public policy.

Weakened momentum

Still, Trump’s unexpected popularity among voters has weakened momentum, some attendees said.

“It’s easy to talk about how important international education is among ourselves, but there is a population out there, especially now during election season, that doesn’t see the need” for international engagement, said Inta Morris, director of Study Colorado, an initiative of Colorado’s Department of Higher Education that seeks to attract more international students to the state.

In a session devoted to 'hot topics' around the world, Gil Latz, president of the Association of International Education Administrators, said US scepticism about the value of global learning reinforces “the stereotypes that others have of us”.

“We aren’t talking with each other, we’re talking at each other,” said Latz, also a senior officer for international affairs at Indiana University Bloomington and Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. “We need to identify ways for our students to graduate, no matter what the discipline is, to operate in a globalised world.”

More than 9,500 people, representing 106 countries, registered for the conference.