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Professional Opinion

Decline in international college enrollment hurts everyone

Study abroad broadens while international students increase diversity on U.S. campuses
University Business, April 2018
Jonathan Green is president of Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania.
Jonathan Green is president of Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania.

U.S. higher education was dealt a serious blow last fall. The expansion of international education that has been a critical financial stimulus for American colleges and universities has experienced an alarming setback.

International education in the forms of U.S. students studying abroad and U.S. institutions enrolling students from other countries has been an important area of growth on campuses across the country for the past decade.

Study abroad has been consistently confirmed as one of the most transformative educational experiences available to a college student.

At Susquehanna University, we are so committed to this developmental advantage that our GO (Global Opportunities) Program requires all our students to have a study-away experience that engages them in a culture different from their own.

To a person, our students declare that this is one of the most empowering and meaningful components of their undergraduate education.

International advantage

Students who come to the U.S. from other countries are benefiting from the same type of transformative learning experience while they are on our campuses. Their presence also enriches our ability to provide sustained intercultural dialogues and to enhance campus diversity.

Surveys of three cohorts of college graduates show that U.S. students who had increased levels of interaction with international students had significantly higher levels of skill development.

Unsurprisingly, these included higher achievement in reading or speaking a foreign language and improved ability to interact with people of different races, nationalities or religions.

The study also revealed greater success in acquiring knowledge independently, in creative problem-solving, in synthesizing information and in understanding the role of science and technology in society.

Falling enrollments

An equally important byproduct in educating foreign nationals is the opportunity to expose them to the best of our culture. They learn the fundamental beauty of a free and democratic society, and the ways in which our republic was born out of the founding fathers’ own education in the liberal arts.

Our international alumni become our most compelling statesmen as they carry the world of ideas they encounter at our institutions back to their home countries. Over time, those around them become ancillary beneficiaries of their experience.

Recently, the Institute for International Education released its annual “Open Doors Report”. This year the number of new international students enrolling in U.S. colleges and universities dropped by 7 percent. This has been fueled by a variety of issues, including increased competition from other nations such as Canada and Australia.

There are also growing perceptions abroad that international students are less welcome on our campuses and in our communities. These perceptions have been fueled by rhetoric coming out of the White House and underscored by actions like the recent travel bans.

International students accounted for $39 billion in net revenue last year. Those funds help U.S. colleges and universities to provide educational services to all our students, and that revenue has a multifold economic impact in our communities.

Those benefits alone should encourage our governmental leaders to become champions in recruiting talented international students to our campuses.

The greater benefit however is the educational gifts these students provide to our domestic students and our faculty and staff colleagues.

As we participate in an evermore internationally interdependent economy and society, we must provide our students the opportunity to learn—from each other—how to become effective and informed global citizens.  


Jonathan Green is president of Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania.