US: New coalition pushes for coordinated national strategy for international education

  • The US does not have a national strategy for international education

  • In this, it is an outlier – for example, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, the UK, and New Zealand all have national strategies in place

  • A group of prominent international education organisations has now created an initiative – the U.S. for Success Coalition – in an effort to stimulate more coordination and overarching strategy in the US international education sector

  • The coalition hopes to work with government on seven goals related to attracting international students and encouraging American students to study abroad

Of the leading destinations for study abroad, only the US does not have an official international education strategy. One reason for this may be that – backed by the prestige of US higher education and America’s place on the world stage – the US has not had to compete as intensively for international students as other countries have.

But over the past decade, other countries such as Australia, Canada, China, Germany, and France have gained notable market share of international student mobility – and that is by no means an exhaustive list. We are also seeing a strengthening pattern of intra-regional mobility. Chinese students have lately been favoring Thailand, for example, while in the MENA region, Egypt is a major host of students from the UAE.

If we look only at the “Big Four” (Australia, Canada, the UK, and US), the US has lost significant share. According to a Holon IQ analysis:

“The US has dropped from just under 60% share of the Big Four in 2000 to around 40% today, losing almost 20% share to the other three. If the US had held on to the position it had in 2000, today the market would have an additional 350,000 students and $20B+ of direct expenditure, primarily tuition for US Higher Education Institutions.”

Early in the administration of President Biden, the US Departments of State and Education announced a renewed focus on international education. They seemed to suggest that they would implement new national policies encouraging both inbound and outbound student mobility. That was in June 2021. Months later, in December 2021, peak bodies including the Institute of International Education and NAFSA issued a statement calling on the US government to partner with higher education stakeholders “to enact policies and take coordinated action to support greater international student enrolment.”

Fast forward to 2023, and there is still no national policy for the sector in the US. However, a group of prominent international education stakeholders has decided to take a more active role in pushing the agenda forward.

Under the banner “U.S. for Success Coalition,” associations including AIRC, NAFSA, and IIE aim to “work in partnership with the U.S. government, higher education institutions, the business sector, and other key partners to foster supportive policies and practices that allow the U.S. to compete and cooperate effectively on the global stage by welcoming international students.”

Members of the U.S. for Success Coalition.

One of the coalition’s goals is the creation of a “proactive strategy to successfully increase the number of international students who study here from all regions of the world and who can work in the U.S. post-graduation.”

In other words, the hope is for US institutions to be able to be guided by, and leverage, an international education strategy.

The U.S. for Success Coalition homepage copy suggests the urgency of the mission – i.e., act now or continue to lose share of the international education market: “We have identified seven interconnected goals that must be met to enable the U.S. higher education system to continue as the leading destination for the world’s global talent.”

The coalition’s goals clearly reflect the central themes of coordination with policy makers, a more integrated and active approach to student recruitment, building and diversifying foreign enrolment in the US, and the development of new pathways for students to work and settle in the country after graduation.

  • “Establish a proactive strategy to successfully increase the number of international students who study here from all regions of the world and who can work in the US post-graduation…We aim to remove barriers and expand opportunities to an increasing diversity of international students choosing the US to study and work.”
  • “Strengthen coordination among organizations and institutions within the field of international and higher education.”
  • “Diversify international students coming to the US, including countries and regions of origin, with an emphasis on those from the Global South.”
  • “Expand the destinations for these students within the US. Build and increase capacity to welcome and support international students at a broad range of US higher education institutions.”
  • “Ensure policies and practices that help US institutions compete effectively to attract and support international students.”
  • “Ensure student success and promote responsible and ethical practices in international student recruitment by supporting colleges and universities in best practices.”
  • “Establish facilitated pathways to employment-based visas and immigration for F-1 international students who are seeking to launch careers in the US after graduation.”

Have US enrolments recovered since the pandemic?

The IIE has just announced that international student numbers in the US grew by 12% in 2022/23 compared with 2021/22 – the fastest rate of growth in 40 years. In 2022/23, there were 1,057,188 international students in US higher education.

Looking more closely at the pattern of that growth, international enrolments are by no means spread evenly across the country or across different types of institution. While some US institutions (e.g., those in the Ivy League and other elite universities and colleges) remain able, through reputation alone, to attract top international students, many others are finding it more challenging than in the past to compete in a global landscape characterized by intense competition for students. As reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Institute of Higher Education (IIE) data show that “just 10 colleges currently enroll 15 percent of all international students in the United States.”

In a 2021 article in American Public Media, Karin Fischer noted that US institutions can no longer rest on the laurels of their country being the top destination, especially not after the isolationism of former President Trump and after significant anti-Asian sentiment in the country amid the pandemic. Of the new competitive environment, she wrote:

“Rather than one main cluster, a lone beacon attracting students from around the globe, there are now dozens of smaller lights, pulling students in.”

Along with the US, Canada, the UK, and Australia have all posted recent significant jumps in international student enrolment.

  • Australia: 6% growth in study permit holders March 2020 to August 2023 for a total of 645,516 visa holders
  • Canada: 31% growth from 2021 to 2022 for a total of 807,750 foreign students in programmes of six months or more
  • UK: 12.4% growth in higher education enrolments in 2021/22 for a total of 679,970 international students
  • US leads “Big Four” in terms of student satisfaction

US leads “Big Four” in terms of student satisfaction

The significant jump in international student enrolments in the US comes on the heels of news that the US received an above-average global score in a major student satisfaction survey conducted by Studyportals. Australia, Canada, and the UK fell below the overall average, trailing countries such as Portugal, Spain, Turkey, and Italy.

Of the US’s strong performance, Edwin van Rest, co-founder and CEO of Studyportals said: “There is a different political climate in the US now compared to 2021. The State Department has done a lot of work to make international students a priority and the climate is more welcoming.”

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