Bringing Global Diversity to U.S. Campuses - An Economic and National Security Imperative

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2016 U.S. Presidential Election Issue Brief

January 2016

Since World War II, U.S. institutions of higher education have welcomed and educated millions of students from all over the world, with many going on to become world leaders and some of our closest friends and allies. U.S. foreign policy leaders from Madeleine Albright to Robert Gates agree that our openness to international students helps strengthen ties with countries across the globe and enhance our own national security. Yet, as the number of students who study in the United States has grown in recent years, much of the increase has been driven by students from a handful of countries who can pay the comparatively high cost of a U.S. education, particularly at the undergraduate level. By allowing the global education marketplace to determine who studies here, we run the risk of not educating students from as wide a variety of cultures, backgrounds, and perspectives on our campuses as we should, harming our ability to foster the international collaboration and creativity essential for future political or economic success. As international and cross-cultural awareness is essential to effective U.S. leadership, prosperity, and national security, we urge the next president to establish a coherent, proactive international student recruitment strategy in partnership with U.S. higher education and the private sector to engage a more globally and economically diverse student population through education and exchange.

Policy Recommendations for the 2016 Presidential Candidates

Current Enrollment Trends

Nearly one million international students are studying in the United States today, double the number here in the late 1990’s, yet only five percent of the overall enrollment total in U.S. higher education. Because financial assistance is limited, especially for undergraduates, nearly two-thirds of international students cover the full cost of tuition and living expenses themselves. Of the international students in this country, 64 percent come from Asia, with students from China, India, and South Korea representing more than half a million students combined. This is not entirely surprising given that 61 percent of the world’s population is located in Asia, a region with growing economies and middle class populations. In contrast, just four percent of international students in the United States are from Africa, even though the continent makes up to 16 percent of the world’s population, has seven of the ten fastest growing economies, and will see its population share grow by 10 percent over the next 35 years, more than any other world region. Africa’s future growth and success has significant global implications, yet absent a proactive strategy, the United States is missing a strategic opportunity to contribute to the education of its future leaders and allies. Meanwhile, the Chinese government recently announced it will provide 30,000 government scholarships to African students recognizing the importance of building ties there.

Proactive Approach to International Student Recruitment

The U.S. government has long recognized the value of expanding educational opportunities around the world and provides scholarships for international students; the most well-known is the Fulbright Program, established to foster global goodwill through educational exchange. Since 1946, the program has supported more than 200,000 international participants from across 140 countries. However, this number appears small when compared with current enrollment figures. Over the past ten years, several foreign governments have created scholarship programs to send their students overseas. For example, Saudi Arabia and Brazil each fund programs, and today there are nearly 60,000 Saudi students and nearly 24,000 Brazilian students studying in the United States. While here, these students are exposed to U.S. values, and their presence alongside American students helps foster a mutual understanding of each other’s cultural differences. They may even acquire an affinity for U.S. products, as future developers and consumers. But we benefit from the presence of these students only so long as their governments deem it a priority and have the funds to send them here (Brazil recently announced cuts to its program due to recent economic challenges, while the Saudi government may also look to make changes to its program in the future.) To better position the United States to face future global challenges as well as shifts in the global education marketplace, it is imperative that we take a more proactive approach to international student recruitment. We must adopt policies that not only articulate the value of attracting international students from around the world to study in the United States, but also identify ways to better balance the diversity of students we engage and educate.

Partnership with U.S. Higher Education and the Private Sector Critical

U.S. higher education and the private sector are critical partners in any coordinated national policy on international student recruitment. Already a number of U.S. colleges and universities have made campus internationalization a top priority, with many going so far as to set enrollment targets for international students. Some also offer need-based and non-need-based financial aid to international undergraduate students. However, just 20 percent of U.S. institutions of higher education provided the nearly $1.2 billion in financial aid to international undergraduates last year, according to The College Board’s Annual Survey of Colleges. To reap the full benefits of a global campus entails engaging and educating as many students from as wide a variety of countries and backgrounds and by as many U.S. institutions of higher education as possible. Support from U.S. private corporations is also essential, as they stand to benefit as markets continue to expand globally. Emerging markets outside of the developed world will constitute the bulk of global economic growth over the next twenty years, and U.S. companies will be looking to diversify their workforce to reflect these markets. A national initiative to foster greater international student diversity on college campuses across the United States would contribute toward these objectives.

A National Policy Initiative

A proactive national public-private policy initiative is imperative to generate a better understanding of global trends, increase diversity of students (by gender, country of origin, ethnicity, socio-economic status), and better prepare all students to collaborate and cooperate in a globalized world. Such an initiative would:

  • Articulate the importance of welcoming and educating international students to the nation;
  • Coordinate government and higher education efforts toward attracting a more diverse pool of international students, especially undergraduate students from critical areas of the world;
  • Establish targets and invest in scholarship funds to enroll more economically disadvantaged students, and students from developing countries, particularly women and girls
  • Address existing U.S. government policies and regulations that impede students coming from developing countries or countries in conflict;
  • Engage the private sector, as international students will contribute to a future workforce and consumer base.

To better defend U.S. interests and more effectively address global unrest now and in the future requires a greater understanding of the world we live in, and educating international students is one of the most effective ways to do that. Rather than allow shifts in the global education marketplace to determine who studies here, the United States must proactively seek to educate a more globally and economically diverse population. We urge the next president to make this a priority.


Rachel Banks, Director Public Policy 202.737.3699 x2556,