How International Education’s Golden Age Lost Its Sheen

On a Sunday in May 2014, 140 students from 49 countries, some in hijabs, some with hair tinted purple to match their graduation robes, walked across the stage to collect the first diplomas awarded at New York University Abu Dhabi.

Former President Bill Clinton was the keynote speaker. But the day really belonged to John E. Sexton, NYU’s president. He greeted every student – many of whom he knew from the 14,000-mile round trip he made from New York every other week to teach – with a fist bump or a hug.

In a way, Sexton was celebrating his achievement as much as theirs. He had shepherded NYU’s Emirati outpost from pie-in-the-sky vision to anchor in a network of global campuses. Another branch campus, in Shanghai, had opened in the fall of 2013. Speaking to an audience of graduates, parents, and assorted sheikhs, he argued for the importance of internationalizing education. “The world you have entered has become miniaturized,” Sexton said. “Events around the globe affect us all, no matter how isolated we seek to be.”

In hindsight, that commencement, held on NYU’s campus, not far from the Abu Dhabi branch of the Louvre, came at the height of what was a golden moment for international education – and one that would soon dim.

It was an era in which higher education found ways to export its prestige, assert itself as a vehicle for American soft power, and facilitate the exchange of people and ideas across borders. American universities joined NYU in opening campuses abroad, including Yale in Singapore and Duke in China. Colleges hired senior administrators to manage their burgeoning overseas portfolios, including student exchanges, faculty research, and joint degrees. 

First Lady Michelle Obama declared study abroad a “key component of this administration’s foreign policy” as the White House rolled out a plan to send 100,000 young Americans to China. And Chinese students led a surge of international students onto American campuses. Their numbers would increase nearly 90 percent, to 1.1 million, an influx welcomed not least because of the tuition dollars they paid.

That golden era was born out of the grimmest of events: the September 11 terrorist attacks and the conviction that the violence – whose perpetrators were erroneously said to have been in the United States on student visas – called for greater engagement with the world, not less. Its end date came a decade and a half later, signaled by the election of Donald J. Trump, on a platform of America First.

While it might be tempting to pin internationalization’s current challenges on President Trump and the nativist environment he has fomented, that explanation also seems insufficient. The president, after all, wasn’t the one that decimated college foreign language programs, shutting down 650 in just three years. His policies have little bearing on the drop-off in the share of institutions reporting that internationalization is a high priority in their strategic plans, from 60 percent, in 2011, to 47 percent in 2017.

Global Emphasis on the Decline

The share of colleges reporting that internationalization is a high priority in their strategic plans and mission statements rose and then dropped between 2006 and 2017.

Some colleges are retrenching, while others try to sustain a global footprint. If the past era was one of empire building, internationalization’s adherents today are playing defense. 

“The landscape is changing,” says Philip G. Altbach, founding director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College. “The era of internationalization might be over, or on life support.”

That American higher education is at this juncture raises difficult questions: Was the work of giving students a global education stymied because it failed to get buy-in beyond the true believers? Was internationalization championed out of convenience – international students contributed $39 billion to the American economy and shored up the budgets of many recession-pressed colleges – more than conviction? Was the rhetoric impassioned but the embrace only lukewarm?

A Fractured Consensus

Trump’s election revealed an uncomfortable truth: What many people – especially the well-educated within and beyond academe – took to be consensus views are not shared by all Americans. 

That everyone should go to college, that national borders were being erased thanks to technology and trade, these developments were seen as “an unmitigated good, like Mom and apple pie,” says Kevin Kinser, head of education-policy studies at Pennsylvania State University. One of internationalization’s core principles, along with post-9/11 openness, is that if graduates are going to live and work in a globalized economy, it is higher education’s responsibility to prepare them.

It turns out a wide swath of the electorate, Trump’s America, did not agree.

Among voters today, there is little accord about America’s role in the world, or if the country should even have one. While globalization was once viewed as a force that would expand opportunity around the world, it is now seen as a source of economic dislocation, scattering winners and losers in its wake. 

Goodbye to The World Is Flat, Thomas Friedman’s paean to globalization. We’re now in the era of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, an evocation of those it left behind.

Internationalization isn’t synonymous with globalization, of course – it’s about equipping people to understand and adapt to a more tightly interdependent world, and embedding that global perspective throughout all that colleges do. Nonetheless, globalization and international education have absorbed some of the same skepticism.

Educating global citizens, as many institutions pledge to do, may not play well with the America First crowd. “We can say that international education is part of living in a diverse world today,” says Madeleine F. Green, a senior fellow at the International Association of Universities. “Of course, if you don’t want to live in a diverse world, that’s not a very compelling argument.”

If the past administration championed global outreach, many universities now report regular visits from the FBI, amid fears foreign students could be poaching research secrets. President Trump’s travel ban and a series of real and threatened visa restrictions have made it more difficult for some foreign students and scholars to travel to the United States or discouraged them from trying. In 2016, for the first time since the attacks of September 11, the number of new international students fell, according to the Institute of International Education. They declined again the following fall.

The shift in internationalization’s tides has been felt especially sharply in English-language programs designed for foreign students who come to the United States. Intensive English tends to be the leading edge of enrollment trends – many students need to improve their language skills before enrolling in degree programs, yet such courses can often be seen as discretionary – and their numbers fell first and fastest. Intensive English enrollments are down 35 percent from their 2015 high. Dozens of programs, including those at the College of New Jersey, California State University at Los Angeles, and the University of Houston’s downtown campus, have closed.

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