When it comes to studying abroad, SDGs matter to students

The 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) encourage organisations around the world to positively affect global inequalities. These ambitious and life-affirming aspirations recognise the interwoven nature of societies around the world that seek to improve living standards and respond to the exacerbating threats of climate change.

The higher education sector plays a crucial role in the exploration of the SDGs via intercultural research, scholastic exchange and thought leadership. The United Nations partners with institutions around the world to investigate and increase awareness of the SDGs.

Through the UN Academic Impact initiative, over 1,400 higher education institutions in 147 countries have partnered with the UN to investigate and disseminate understanding of the SDGs.

This month at the NAFSA annual conference, representatives of the United Nations, the United States Commercial Service, Study California and the University of Colorado Boulder will present “Aligning US International Education with Sustainability Goals to Increase Recruitment”.

This year’s theme, Building our Sustainable Future, offers higher education institutions the opportunity to demonstrate their green credentials and showcase how their commitment to sustainable development positively affects their international student recruitment.

How the SDGs affect student recruitment

International student mobility trends reflect the increasing prominence of the SDGs when it comes to the decision-making process for prospective tertiary students studying outside their home countries.

As the consequences of global socio-economic challenges become ever more evident, prospective students are cognisant of how institutions of higher learning are addressing the climate crisis.

Students are inquiring about academic programmes that promote sustainable development, discovering more about the carbon footprint of the institution, including the promotion of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) building standards for campus facilities, and learning more about campaigns to divest university endowments from holdings in the fossil fuel industry.

They are seeking knowledge about how institutions in the US are addressing the climate crisis in order to return to their home countries with a broadened perspective, enhanced professional networks and renewed enthusiasm.

US higher education institutions offer a myriad of ways to investigate sustainable development on their campuses. The reduction of students’ environmental impact can be explored via national competitions like RecycleMania, where institutions compete to reduce their carbon footprint.

Through events like the Loyola University Chicago Climate Change Conference, students are inspired to discover how their actions on a local level can impact the macro level challenges of socio-economic enhancement.

Many institutions have also established offices like University of Colorado Boulder Sustainability and Loyola Marymount University’s Institute for Business Ethics and Sustainability to foster innovation and enhance the campus community’s ability to address climate change.

Donors to universities are increasingly prioritising this work, as evidenced by Stanford University’s largest ever donation to support its Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability.

Students enrol in colleges and universities in the US with the expectation that their degree will enhance their future career goals; institutions expect that their alumni will be inspired to make a positive impact on the world.

Competition for green credentials

Institutions have also extensively promoted their green credentials in order to demonstrate to prospective students their commitment to sustainable development.

For example, rankings such as the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings and the Princeton Review Guide to Green Colleges are phenomenal opportunities for globally mobile students to discover dynamic institutions with this focus.

The institutions found in these lists use the rankings to distinguish themselves among the dynamic and competitive higher education student recruitment landscape.

Additionally, the US Commercial Service Environmental Technologies Industry and its educational initiatives promote climate change research and sustainable development projects at US colleges and universities.

The Commercial Service partners with study state consortia like Study California to promote programmes such as Sustainable California where partner institutions highlight pioneering projects on their campuses.

Revolutionary research on renewable energy, environmental resilience and enhanced salvaging systems motivates international students to pursue their studies with ground-breaking professors and institutions in these areas.

Similar to how the COVID-19 pandemic profoundly demonstrated the interconnected nature of our world, the interconnected crises of rising sea levels, extreme weather patterns and contaminated ecosystems demand the attention of students around the world.

International students recognise the contributions of US colleges and universities towards sustainable development programmes to address these challenges.

Virtual and hybrid recruitment

In practical terms, the COVID-19 pandemic led to a dramatic change in the quotidian responsibilities of international recruitment professionals. Due to international travel restrictions and border closures to reduce the spread of the virus, in-person recruitment events rapidly adjusted to virtual experiences with a dramatically lower carbon footprint.

In-person meetings that previously required extensive intercontinental air travel were held virtually and institutions were able to enrol globally mobile students even without face-to-face interactions before the student arrived on campus. Students also benefited from virtual events that provided unprecedented accessibility to renowned scholars from all points in the globe.

Whereas before the pandemic an in-person campus tour experience was a luxury for many international students, once higher education institutions transitioned to an online format awareness of the campus life experience became much more widespread via digital means.

With the reduction of pandemic travel restrictions, international recruitment professionals will adopt a hybrid student engagement strategy to connect with prospective students.

Whether in person or virtually, admissions officers will discover that international students will continue to prioritise the SDGs amongst the factors that determine where they choose to pursue their higher education.

Dr Daniel P Marschner is director of international admission at Loyola Marymount University, United States. He is speaking in the session “Aligning US International Education with Sustainability Goals to Increase Recruitment” at the NAFSA conference on 1 June.