There may be some major shifts under way in international student mobility patterns. The current upheavals in the United States higher education landscape appear to be driving greater numbers of US students to consider full degrees abroad.
US universities and colleges were on the ropes prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, with many institutions already facing shrinking enrolments, budget crunches and stagnating public funding. Add COVID-19 to the mix and the challenges only get worse for US higher education. The cracks in the system are growing into chasms and the landscape may be forever changed.
From reassurance to panic
Over the past few years an energetic debate has emerged among educational leaders regarding the tenuous nature of US higher education. The range of opinions fall along two extremes: reassurance and panic.
On the reassurance end, some are arguing for maintaining the status quo, offering polite mollifications that enrolment fluctuations and changes in disciplinary offerings are perfectly normal and there will be hardly any permanent disruption to higher education as we have known it.
On the panic end, some are questioning the long-term viability of ‘bricks and mortar’ institutions and are calling for a broad rethinking of US higher education.
Indeed, these are challenging times for higher education in the US and pressure to act is growing. Already this year, a number of institutions have closed, including Urbana University, MacMurray College, Robert Morris University, Concordia University Portland and Marlboro College, and more are expected.
Further complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic, some observers predict that between 10% and 20% of the more than 4,000 institutions in the US may close or merge in the near future and many more may be facing insolvency.
Already, international students have begun to turn away from the US. According to the Institute of International Education (IIE), the number of new international students choosing to study in the US has been declining since 2015-16. Unfriendly national rhetoric, frequent and punishing shifts in immigration policy and fears for safety and security in the US, along with increasing international competition, are channelling student flows away from the US, particularly to the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
A future recruitment market?
Not surprisingly, it appears that a growing number of US students are beginning to show greater interest in pursuing study outside of the country. And why not? US students and their families are under tremendous strain. The rising cost of education and student debt, increasing scrutiny about the time needed to complete a bachelor’s degree and the ever-shifting nature of industry-driven qualifications combine to create a sense of considerable uncertainty for US students.
Moreover, the country’s chaotic response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the questionable promise of residential instruction going forward are awakening in students the need to consider other viable alternatives.
Dissatisfaction with racial justice and a generally increased awareness of the importance of global engagement are among other reasons pushing students to consider foreign study. The obvious question is not if, but when the US will become a robust market for recruiting prospective degree-seeking students.
According to IIE, about 340,000 US students studied abroad in 2017/18 as part of their respective home university degree studies. Compared to China and India, both countries that account for the largest proportion of degree-seeking international students, there has been little attention given to international degree-seeking mobility among US students. Because each country collects data differently, it has been challenging to ascertain an accurate and consistent accounting of US students seeking full degrees abroad.
According to UNESCO, about 86,500 US students were studying abroad in 2017, which is about 15% higher than what was reported just five years earlier. In 2013, IIE conducted a comprehensive survey on US students enrolled in degree-seeking programmes abroad and reported that there were more than 46,500 students.
Through its Project Atlas initiative, IIE has continued observing degree-seeking enrolments and in 2018 tallied more than 53,000 students from the relatively few countries that reported such enrolments. Still, IIE observes steady year-on-year increases, especially among graduate students pursuing degrees in specialised STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) fields.
The majority of US students abroad in 2018 were studying in Anglophone countries, of which the UK (16,805) and Canada (13,035) were the top hosting countries, followed by France (6,264) Germany (4,242), China (3,333), Australia (2,875), New Zealand (2,405), Spain (2,030), Denmark (1,248) and Japan (757).
Despite the lack of reliable data, various advisory organisations are emerging with hopes of capitalising on student interest by building the case for why and how US students should pursue full degrees abroad.
Study.eu is one such organisation that provides an extensive online database with information on English-taught degree programmes throughout Europe. According to Study.EU, US students make up the second-largest group of users on the website, after Indian students. This continues in spite of a long list of closed borders for US citizens in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The factors encouraging US students abroad
Affordable Degrees Abroad is another organisation that appeals to prospective US students by emphasising the relative affordability and high academic quality of international degrees. Affordable Degrees Abroad has identified several factors that appear to be driving US students to consider full degrees abroad.
1. Affordability. Affordability is a significant factor for US students. Compared to the US, many international institutions are considerably more affordable, with a significant number under US$17,000 a year. Some institutions charge under $3,000 a year which is practically free by US standards. US students may even use US federal financial aid at more than 400 international institutions.
2. High-quality education. In the past the perceived educational quality of international degrees was questioned by some US parents, students or employers who were not familiar with global education. With the increasing popularity of global university rankings and other indicators of institutional reputation and prestige, uncertainty is being replaced with admiration and respect.
3. Timespan to degree completion. Many degrees abroad are shorter. For example, some undergraduate degrees abroad can be completed in three years and graduate degrees in one to two years. Shorter time to degree completion further bolsters the case for affordability.
4. Language of instruction. The number of English-taught degrees has grown dramatically around the world, even in countries where English may not be the primary language. For example, Germany now offers more than 1,600 programmes taught in English.
5. Career readiness. As international business and global operations have increased so, too, have demands for employees with international savvy. Earning a foreign degree, while once perceived by some US employers with suspicion, can be an asset today. Additionally, many countries have attractive post-study work visas that allow for students to gain valuable work experience before returning.
6. Health, safety and security. The US response to the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed something that was present all along: it can be safer to live in another country with less crime, fewer gun deaths and stronger public health systems than in the US. A growing refrain is: “I want to send my kid somewhere that is handling COVID better.”
7. Racial injustice and inequality. The growing Black Lives Matter movement against racial disparities and injustice in the US has elevated a critical conversation. The legacy of racial inequalities, harsh political rhetoric and violence has left many students of colour, in particular black students, wary. For some, the promise of studying abroad in a more accepting and welcoming environment is attractive.
8. Political instability. The growth of nationalism and isolationist rhetoric, coupled with the anxieties of the current US election season, have created tensions and unease across the US. For some students, pursuing an international degree can be a way to achieve a solid education in a less fractured country.
The right message and the right strategy
There are challenges, of course, that discourage US students from pursuing full degrees abroad, notwithstanding language and cultural issues. Of particular importance is ensuring that US students are prepared for the level of independence needed to succeed. US institutions generally have more robust campus and student service infrastructures compared to international institutions. Students must be prepared to navigate different cultural and academic systems.
Although the US has largely been viewed by international recruiters as a non-degree market for outbound mobility, things may be changing. International institutions seeking to increase and further diversify international student enrolment, particularly from North America, might want to reassess the US market and begin positioning themselves accordingly.
Although the sheer size, scope and complexity of the US education system can be daunting, those institutions with a compelling message, a clear value proposition and an informed strategy will likely find greater receptivity among US students than ever before.