An undeniable shift is taking place across US campuses with the number of international students increasing rapidly. Between 2003 and 2013, the number of foreign students studying in the US increased by 55% with continuing growth anticipated in the years ahead.
This has led to some concerns about domestic students being displaced by more affluent international students who can afford to pay rising tuition costs. Inherent in this view is the assumption that the primary obligation of US universities is towards their local residents and that financial interests are driving the trend.
A common claim is that “cash-strapped public universities” are “aggressively recrui[ting] students from abroad.”
In our view, these are flawed assumptions.
It is very likely that the increasing pace of globalization, is playing a role, but, it is important to note that US campuses have historically witnessed demographic shifts as a result of social and economic changes that took place around them.
These demographic shifts gradually broadened US universities from a domain of elite, white men to one that included veterans, women and increasing numbers of underrepresented minorities.
As researchers who focus on the internationalization of US higher education, we believe the increasing numbers of international students need to be understood in this historic context and as merely one more step in the ongoing demographic expansion of US universities.
How US universities evolved
Early US universities were parochial. American colleges in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were designed to educate a population of elite, local, Christian young men for service to their religious and local communities.
But within a short half-century or so, this changed radically. The Morrill Land-Grant Acts of 1862 and 1890 provided funding to each state to develop practical post-secondary education in agriculture and mechanical fields – the “A&M” (agriculture and mechanical) universities that many states retain today.
As the purpose of higher education grew to include these practical subjects in addition to the traditional focus on the classics and ancient languages, higher education changed from an “elite” system that educated less than 15% of college-aged youth to a “mass” one that educated between 15% – 50% of it.
A massive influx of veterans to US campuses after World War II, funded by the GI Bill of Rights, further broadened US universities’ student demographics from an elite domain to institutions serving a broader and more diverse population.
These demographic changes were not always smooth ones; each wave of change has been and in some cases, continues to be challenged.
The idea that all Americans ought to have a pathway to higher education has become a deeply held belief. Indeed, issues of access and equity remain perhaps the two most dominant areas of research and policy making in US higher education today.
Increasing international student numbers are being seen by some as a threat to domestic student access or as solely driven by the money-making zeal of US higher education institutions.
A news article recently cited numerous examples of dwindling state funding for higher education amidst rising tuition for in-state and out-of-state Americans at traditionally land grant, public institutions.
Tensions on campus, according to the author, coupled with pressure on state-level legislators by disgruntled students and parents, is leading to a backlash movement against further international student growth.
Global role of universities
We suggest such a backlash is fundamentally flawed for at least two important reasons.
First, efforts to preserve ‘seats’ for local residents rests on an assumption that public institutions’ primary obligations ought to be to their local communities.
Although this assumption is rooted in historical facts – since most US universities were founded by either local communities or by religious ones – universities’ obligations to bigger and broader communities has grown over time.
After World War II, universities became key players in national security and international development projects as university scholars embraced new roles as problem solvers who could address pressing challenges of Cold War geopolitics, modernization and development and national security.
By the time the Berlin Wall fell, the pace of globalization had begun its rapid acceleration in ways that would forever alter universities’ notion of communities. As Stevens and Miller-Idriss argue in their forthcoming book based on a long-term research project at the US Social Science Research Council, a new global logic in US universities dictates that university patrons and flows of students and scholars are global as well as local.
Second, the data on domestic student displacement is not entirely clear.
Although it is indisputable that international students are growing in number, it is not clear that their percentage within the total student population on campuses has grown.
In other words, in-state students may be an increasingly small percentage of the students on campus, but their total numbers may not be much greater or less than than they were 10 or 20 years ago. It might be simply that the overall population has grown and out-of-state and international students are a larger share of the pie.
Foreign students not a detriment
What do these shifts mean for local students who feel closed out of seats in their state universities?
We sympathize with anxious parents and students who feel the burden of incessantly rising tuition costs and believe that international applicants may negatively affect their chances of getting into the college or university of their choice. But we urge them to balance emotion with fact.
Before passing judgment on institutions and the international students they serve, we urge those affected to ask their state institutions for hard data on student enrollment numbers over time and to gather the most objective and reliable facts at their disposal before urging action by their state legislators to change the public institutions serving them.
Lastly, we suggest seeing growing international student enrollments as a positive new trend in a long list of demographic transformations that have historically shaped the US university mostly for the better.
Previous demographic transformations also raised alarm bells. The rising numbers of veterans post World War II were met with dismay by some: University of Chicago president Robert M. Hutchins warned that campuses would turn into “hobo jungles.”
But such dire predictions turned out to be ill-advised, as academic Christopher P Loss has argued, in part because the older, mature veteran students were more serious, disciplined, and pursued academic learning more rigorously.
We believe that a similar perception will emerge over time when the contributions international students are making to US higher education will be seen as having been a boon to the US higher education system rather than a detriment to it.
Perhaps our energy would be better spent trying to maximize international students’ contributions rather than challenging them.
Cynthia Miller-Idriss is Associate Professor of Education and Sociology at American University.
Bernhard Streitwieser is Assistant Professor of International Education, Graduate School of Education and Human Development at George Washington University.