Coalition unites around need for more international students

In an effort to staunch a quarter century-long decline – from 28% to 15% – in the percentage of world-wide international students coming to the United States, 11 groups have formed a coalition to coordinate a multipronged effort to increase the numbers of international students studying in the United States.

The US for Success Coalition (USSC), which includes the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, World Education Services and NAFSA: Association of International Educators, will work with the US government, colleges, universities and community colleges and other stakeholders such as the business sector to coordinate efforts in seven key areas.

Among these areas is the diversification of the pool of international students that come to the US, with an emphasis on the Global South, economically underrepresented students and women.

USSC will also work towards ensuring that US colleges and universities are not hamstrung by policies and practices that prevent them from competing effectively in attracting and supporting international students who seek to come to the US and to enable businesses to hire them.

Historically, international students coming to the US are associated with the nation’s major universities: 23% of Harvard’s 30,391 students are international students while international students account for 42% of graduate students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and 30% of the graduate students at Stanford are international students.

USSC is taking a wider view and will expand the destinations for international students to include a broader range of higher education institutions, including community colleges, historically black colleges and universities and other minority serving institutions.

To help foster international students’ success, USSC will work with higher education institutions to increase capacity in intensive English-language training, vocational education, experiential learning and practical training.

“USSC is a coalition made up of higher education associations that have been working on these issues. But now, we’re doing it together in one unified voice. But it’s not only the associations that are coming together, it’s also the business sector, and other key stakeholders,” said Fanta Aw, executive director and CEO of Washington, DC-based NAFSA, the world’s largest association of international educators, founded in 1948.

“It’s not enough to say let’s recruit as many students [as we can] and bring them here. We must be ready, and our institutions have to be ready. And part of being ready requires ensuring that the students who come here, we do right by them. That we provide them with the resources and support that they need to thrive, to be retained, to graduate,” said Aw.

Anti-immigrant sentiment

The launch of a major initiative to increase international students coming to the US at this time may not seem propitious given that campuses across the United States are roiled by ongoing demonstrations on both sides of the current Hamas-Israel conflict.

Aw was asked about this and, in a wider sense, how USSC hopes to counter the general anti-immigrant feelings that helped propel Donald J Trump into the White House in 2016 and which he still stokes, she began by underscoring the importance of free debate on US college and university campuses.

“I come from the premise that college campuses should be epicentres for robust and respectful exchange of ideas among students, scholars and faculty from diverse backgrounds – and that higher education should do whatever it can to strive to foster these spaces. For me it’s always, if whenever possible, in the context of dignity.

“We have for a long time prided ourselves on the course of free speech. That is what the bastion of higher education is supposed to be about,” said Aw.

Accordingly, Aw said that since international students are covered by the constitutional First Amendment’s protection of free speech, NAFSA would be “absolutely troubled with the notion that student visas could be revoked on the basis of speech alone . . . this would be a very dangerous overreaction.”

However, Aw emphasised, colleges and universities have codes of conduct and offices responsible for dealing with discrimination and harassment. If these rules are broken, “they should definitely put in motion the policies and procedures that they’ve put in place. And this should apply to all students, not only international students, not only domestic students, but to all students,” Aw said.

The case for international students

Alongside her ringing defence of international students: “We’re in a time and an era when we need to make sure that there’s no scapegoating of international students based on some anti-immigration phobia,” Aw laid out for University World News the bread-and-butter arguments USSC uses to counter anti-international student bias.

First, addressing the argument that there are too many international students on America’s campuses, she said that in the US international students represent 5% of the overall enrolment. Accordingly: “It’s safe to say that we have tremendous capacity in the US higher education sector.”

Secondly, she noted their important economic contribution to the United States. In 2018, according to figures attributed to the US Department of Commerce, international students contributed some US$45 billion to the country’s economy, a figure equivalent to the combined earning of exports in the automotive, pharmaceutical and commercial aircraft sectors.

Almost half-a-million jobs were created by monies paid by international students to their schools and the communities they lived in. (On Monday 13 November, NAFSA will be releasing a detailed study of the economic impact of international students in the United States.)

Thirdly, pointing to the fact that the general public tends to confuse immigrants with international students, she noted that, after graduation, many go back to their home countries or to other countries. Those who wish to remain in the US and become immigrants need, Aw said, pathways that lead to citizenship; developing these is one of the seven goals enunciated by the USSC.

To counter anti-immigrant-international student fears and rhetoric, Aw said that “we have to continually remind our legislators, to remind our communities and others, that the United States must continue to engage with the world”.

Aw continued by taking a wider historical view. “We’ve had this period of retreat [from the world]. I think it’s safe to say that that retreat has been harmful to us as a nation. The ability to re-engage with the world fully is key. And, I would argue that international students are an important part of that,” she said.

Racial politics

Towards the end of the conversation Aw was asked how the tenor of racial politics in states like Florida and Texas are likely to affect international students’ decision to come to the United States given that USSC’s emphasis on the Global South means that these students are, to use American terminology, ‘people of colour’.

After emphasising that international students are not a monolithic group – there’s socio-economic diversity, gender diversity, religious diversity – Aw said that because of where most international students come from, international offices and diversity, equality and inclusivity (DEI) must be in a coalition.

“Institutions who continue to assault DEI will suffer because part of the reason international students come to the US is specifically because of multiculturalism that we often talk about. That matters to them. And it signals to them if this [college] is a welcoming place or not,” said Aw.

To a specific question about whether students might shy away from Florida because of the policies of Governor Ron DeSantis, such as banning the teaching of critical race theory or the truth of American slavery, Aw answered simply: “There is that potential risk,” before adding that she believes that higher education institutions will be creative in the ways they provide support to both domestic and international students.

Beyond daily headlines

Aw closed the discussion by asking students around the world to look beyond the daily headlines and the rhetoric of those opposed to immigration and international students, and to think of what life on one of America’s more than 4,000 campuses is like on a day-to-day basis.

She began by saying: “The US is far from perfect, far from perfect,” before addressing the context of immigration and international students on a global level. In Asia, for example, “where many of our [international] students come from, there are major challenges around immigration, and major challenges [around] caste systems”.

Aw, herself an immigrant from Mali, and speaking from her more than 30 years’ experience as a professor teaching sociology and a senior university administrator, spoke about what she believes they will experience in the US: “Irrespective of what has been going on in terms of rhetoric and the vitriol around immigration, this is a nation of immigrants. Once [they] get to our campuses and communities … students will see first-hand … that most of our campuses are made up of significant diaspora communities that are [already] here.

“We have to balance the rhetoric and the headlines with what is the reality on the ground.”