International students are so much more than cash cows

In a recent interview, Dr Fanta Aw, the newly minted CEO of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, perhaps signalling a shift in rhetoric and priorities, emphasised the importance of “recruiting international students in helping the US survive the upcoming enrolment cliff – as one of many strategies”, noting that “we do believe there is ample capacity at US colleges and universities to welcome them” and adding that this “starts with approaching international students with the right motivation and perspective – to see them as true assets to the campus, classroom and community on a multitude of levels – not to simply plug a gap in enrolment or tuition dollars”. Those words were music to my ears.

In other words, the multibillion-dollar economic impact of international students is just one of the many benefits of the international student recruitment industry.

Aw, who is a former international student from Mali and NAFSA’s first CEO with that background, elaborated on this comment in an email exchange, noting that: “This is not a new concept on my part. Having worked in international education for over 30 years, it has been my stance that international students are not cash cows and that for institutions to increase enrolments it is important to have systems of support and a whole-student approach to include investment in services and programmes for their success.”

She also mentioned the obvious: “The argument that international students contribute to the economies of institutions and the states in which they live is a fact and the two are not contradictory.”

A welcoming environment

Whenever I speak with prospective clients and partners, one of the questions I usually ask is about campus support for international students and town-gown relations.

Do the campus and surrounding community offer a friendly and welcoming environment? Are non-US American and often non-white ‘others’ treated with dignity and respect? I need to know that Vietnamese and other international students will be able to thrive academically, culturally and socially. I want to know that they’ll be taken care of.

That is the ultimate truth in advertising that creates a quadruple-win situation for students, the educational consulting companies that help them, the institutions that host them and the countries in which they are located.

Many wholeheartedly agree with this assessment. While we all recognise the economic realities of international student recruitment, most of us did not enter the profession with the heartfelt goal of improving educational institutions’ bottom line.

Aw added that it is “also important for institutions to consider scholarship funds to support international students. Students and families seek an education abroad that cares for students and ensures their success”.

This is truer than ever in the new normal era. The good news is that I see ample evidence that overseas study is a buyer’s market because of a perfect storm of demographic factors in many of the most popular host countries.

Grateful colleagues chimed in on social media:

• “The perspective shift here is key. Fanta Aw … emphasises the need for an education environment that values them as true assets. A holistic approach is vital for sustainable growth, not just plugging enrolment gaps. Don’t roll your eyes at this stuff. Set your cynicism aside for a bit (or longer). It can and must be done well.”

• “International students provide so many benefits to US colleges and universities. Moreover, they oftentimes pay three to four times domestic tuition rates. They deserve comprehensive services and our respect and gratitude.”

• “The image of international students as cash cows is repugnant. This article should resonate with all international educators as we need to manage up to reflect the need for comprehensive services for overseas students to grow.”

True, but one of the most oft-used arguments for hosting (more) international students in the US has been their economic value, ie, their utilitarian status as cash cows. This has been the profession’s bread-and-butter means of promoting international education (read international student recruitment) for as long as I can remember, and I began my career in this field in the late 1980s while still a PhD student.

Measuring value

Look no further than the NAFSA International Student Economic Value Tool and the number of press releases from NAFSA, the Institute of International Education and other establishment organisations that continually hammer away at this point.

A PDF file explains the tool’s methodology, which notes that it uses “data already collected for other purposes to provide a reasonable estimate of the economic resources that international students import to the United States to support their education here each year”.

“There are two main outputs from this analysis: Part (1): Estimate of Economic Value, which is the overall imported dollars from international students without any multiplier effect; and Part (2): Estimate of Jobs Created or Supported, which is both the direct and indirect (ie, multiplier) of jobs created and supported via the import dollars from international students studying in the United States.”

The November 2022 update revealed that international students studying at US institutions of higher education contributed US$33.8 billion and supported 335,423 jobs during the 2021-22 academic year. The site features a clickable map of the US that includes state and congressional district analyses of the economic contributions of international students and their families to the economy.

For example, for my home state of Delaware, which has fewer than one million residents and therefore only one congressional district, I generated a report that showed a financial contribution of US$86.6 million and 916 jobs supported, with 3,046 international students enrolled. This included the University of Delaware (US$80.8 million, supporting 860 jobs) and Wilmington University (US$5.8 million, supporting 56 jobs).

Yet when I was country director of the Institute of International Education – Vietnam, the message from on high was clear and commonsensical: do not mention the economic benefits of Vietnamese students studying in the US. It’s not what parents and students want to hear.

Still, albeit for domestic (US) consumption, the country fact sheets that are released with other Open Doors data every November mention “economic impact”. In 2021, it was a cool US$721 million, plus boarding and day school students, which the Institute of International Education does not include in its survey.

In an obligatory nod to other benefits, NAFSA points out: “The economic contributions of international students are in addition to the immeasurable academic and cultural value these students bring to our campuses and local communities.”

Colleagues are expected to use the information to make the case for policies and statements from their US senators and congressional representatives that are supportive of international students.

Why a dollars-and-cents approach is no longer adequate

Economic impact has always been the go-to argument in favour of hosting (more) international students when lobbying political leaders for support. Who can argue with revenue and jobs, right? It’s a message that should resonate with everyone, regardless of political persuasion.

A dollars-and-cents approach was thought to be more powerful and persuasive than conjuring up visions of sitting around the global campfire, holding hands and singing Kumbaya, My Lord or It’s a Small World (After All). At least that used to be the case.

In the era of MAGA (Make America Great Again), with its anti-foreign, anti-immigrant and white nationalist sentiment, the financial argument holds less water than it once did. That horse left the barn with the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Ideology often trumps pragmatism, and this is a textbook example.

This is why it is more important than ever that we not only continue preaching to the choir about the myriad tangible and intrinsic benefits of international students, but that we, including the professional associations of which many of us are members, communicate the same message to those stakeholders whose words and actions have an impact on the health of the international student enterprise.

In her essay “International education’s goal? To enrich human beings”, Ly Tran concludes by asserting that “the ultimate goal of international education should be to enrich human beings”. This is a key point that those who advocate for international students should emphasise, in addition to the other more utilitarian arguments.

Maybe the predominant view of international students as sources of local, state and national revenue that has been embraced and propagated by international education organisations for decades will evolve into one that consistently and passionately highlights all the benefits of welcoming international students to our academic and local communities.

Dr Mark A Ashwill is managing director and co-founder of Capstone Vietnam, a full-service educational consulting company with offices in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City that works exclusively with regionally accredited colleges and universities in the United States and officially accredited institutions in other countries. Ashwill blogs at An International Educator in Viet Nam. A list of selected English and Vietnamese language essays can be accessed from his blog.