Is It Time for a U.S. International Education Strategy?

Across the globe, a range of government-sponsored internationalization strategies, policies, and funding helps countries attract international students and boost their own student mobility. Does the United States measure up?
Photo: Inbal Marilli/Unsplash

November 18, 2019, brought unwelcome news for U.S. international educators. For the third straight year, new international student enrollment in U.S. institutions declined; there was a 0.9 percent decrease during the 2018–19 academic year over 2017–18. The news came courtesy of the newly issued Open Doors report from the Institute of International Education in partnership with the U.S. Department of State. 

These numbers followed the trend of 2018’s Open Doors data, which showed a 6.6 percent decline in new international student enrollment from 2016–17 to 2017–18 and a 3.3 percent decline in new enrollments from 2015–16 to 2016–17.

Some of the big gainers in international student enrollment in recent years—including Australia, Canada, China, and Germany—have something that the United States does not: a national strategy for international student recruitment. Many have even more comprehensive national plans for higher education internationalization, which clearly played a key role in the rise of some of those nations as destination markets, higher education leaders say.

“If you look at the data for the countries that are putting in place international plans working on national efforts to recruit international students, you will find those are the countries that are increasing market share,” says Melanie Gottlieb, deputy director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO). “The efforts they are putting into their recruitment absolutely are paying off.”

Internationalization strategies can indicate a nation’s commitment to higher education, notes the British Council’s 2019 report The Shape of Global Higher Education: the Americas. According to the British Council, the United Kingdom’s own international education promotion body, “Countries’ international strategies are effectively signaling the excellence of their [higher education] systems to prospective students.” 

Daniela Craciun, a political science doctoral student at Central European University, focused her dissertation on a comparative analysis of nations’ internationalization strategies. Craciun says that evidence to date shows that strategic plans impact internationalization success: “If we examine regional results, with the exception of North America, all other world regions ranked government policy as the most important or second most important external driver of internationalization, thus confirming the significance of this factor in forwarding the process.”

The United States has not developed such a plan for a variety of reasons. Chief among them is the dominant role of individual states in U.S. higher education regulation. Another obstacle has been the complexity of having at least four different federal agencies with responsibilities that affect international higher education.

Though the United States has long enjoyed its good fortune of being the leading international student destination, its share of the enrollment pie is shrinking. Domestic enrollment and state support for U.S. students is declining in many states, resulting in undercapacity at some institutions. With those factors combined, now could be the time to renew the push for a national strategy, according to many—though certainly not all—U.S. higher education leaders. 

The Scope of a National Internationalization Strategy

Among those who do support a national plan, there are differences of opinion in what they would like to see it entail. From emphasizing international student recruitment to setting economic contribution targets, a strategy could include the following components.

General Messaging

The plan could include strong and high-level statements that the United States welcomes international students, sees internationalization as a strong value, and is a safe place to pursue higher education. 

The messages could emphasize the diversity of educational options and the freedom given to students at many institutions to design their own educational program, as well as the flexibility to make changes—all comparative strengths of the U.S. higher education system.

Branding and Marketing

To support that general messaging, national branding campaigns can highlight key and unique points about the U.S. value proposition (similar to New Zealand’s “Think New”). However, some foreign international education leaders say that the United States may have less need for this than its competitors given the global marketing provided by Hollywood’s generally favorable portrayals of U.S. higher education. Therefore, marketing campaigns that highlight different sides of the university experience in the United States—busy cities with cultural attractions and proximities to industries, as well as smaller towns with smaller class sizes and more teacher attention—would show the range of options available to students and their interests.


There is general agreement among U.S. international educators that a national strategy could include efforts to expedite visa processing, better explain processes and timelines, seek to avoid immigration incidents in which students are detained en route for unclear reasons, and improve postgraduation immigration policy. The strategy could also implement policies designed to increase coordination between the four major federal agencies that affect U.S. higher education:

  1. Department of State, which issues entry visas, promotes U.S. higher education to students around the world, administers the Fulbright exchange program, monitors international student flows through its Open Doors survey, and promotes study abroad.
  2. Department of Homeland Security, which grants physical admission to the country, maintains information regarding international students through its Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), enforces immigration law, and processes student work authorizations and immigration status extensions.
  3. Department of Commerce, which promotes higher education as an export and also assists U.S. higher education institutions in student recruitment.
  4. Department of Education, which supports Title VI funding for programs such as Fulbright and Hays Scholarships, maintains a database of accredited postsecondary institutions and programs, and supports U.S. students in their study of foreign languages and world regions. 

International Student Recruitment Goals

Targets around recruitment entail establishing numeric goals for international student enrollment, as well as prioritizing broader diversity in enrollments from around the world and all levels of society to foster greater cross-cultural awareness, which is essential to U.S. leadership. Diversifying recruitment can also help limit institutions’—and the international education sector as a whole—vulnerabilities to adverse geopolitical, economic, and competitive developments.  

A national strategy could also target certain U.S. regions and institution types that currently receive fewer international students, and position them as attractive destinations, says Gottlieb at AACRAO. Eighty percent of international students study at 200 of the 4,600 total institutions in the country, she says.

Scholarships, Economic Goals, and Comprehensive Internationalization

Some experts, such as Gottlieb, think more scholarships should be available to attract the best students from around the world. Others say that goals for international strategies can include boosting economic targets for the higher education sector and the country as a whole; improving institution and higher education sector rankings, such as through research collaborations; and preparing students for a globalized world and global citizenship. 

But many in the field would go much farther and include steps to broaden the internationalization of domestic institutions, such as expanding education abroad programs, increasing the internationalization of courses and curricula, and creating standards for support systems for both education abroad and international students.

U.S.-Specific Considerations for a National Plan

If the United States were to conceive a national strategy, it would need to account for the country’s specific needs and be tailored to the higher education structure in place, say experts.

“Our major foreign competitors have national plans with targets for enrollment and links to workforce development,” says David Di Maria, associate vice provost for international education at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County (UMBC) and a board member of the Maryland International Education Consortium (MIEC). “A U.S. plan might be less specific and less centralized, and more of a coordinated action plan with flexible internationalization tactics at the state level that roll up to national goals.” 

While a U.S. strategy would be largely implemented at the state level, the role of the federal government would need to be clearly defined. There are a range of opinions as to whether one, or more than one, governmental agency would lead the effort, which agency or agencies should be tapped to do so, and how much funding would be needed to administer a national plan.  

“A U.S. plan might be less specific and less centralized, and more of a coordinated action plan with flexible internationalization tactics at the state level that roll up to national goals.”  —David Di Maria

There are some precedents for wide-ranging national plans, says Jim Ellis, executive director of the Study Alabama Consortium. For example, the Travel Promotion Act of 2009 established Brand USA as the nation’s first public-private partnership to spearhead a globally coordinated marketing effort to promote the United States as a premier travel destination and to communicate U.S. visa and entry policies. 

Support Across the Field 

Among the top arguments leaders in the field are making for a comprehensive international education strategy: it would signify that internationalization is a national priority, bring together disparate players to work in concert, and communicate to international students that they are welcome in the United States.

“ACCRAO has no official position per se on a national plan, but I would say we do have a position on access and ease of access, and certainly a national position would support access as well as provide a national voice around recruitment,” Gottlieb says.

Driven by the need to expand access, a comprehensive plan could provide “clarity about immigration rules, the student and work visa process, and consistency and speed,” says Anthony Bailey, vice president for strategic and global initiatives at University of Southern California. 

Many regional and state consortia leaders also express support for a U.S. internationalization or international student recruitment plan in order for the country to remain competitive. 

“It is crucial that we launch a very strong national policy for lots of reasons,” says Saleha Suleman, president of MIEC and assistant vice president for international initiatives at Towson University. “We need to prioritize the value of higher education and the importance of not being insulated in a globalized world.”

“As a professional community, we need to ensure that the enormous benefits of international education are publicly communicated in a way that transcends partisan and ideological preconceptions.” —Paul Schulmann

While Ivy League and larger research institutions have the name recognition, cache, and international office pull that render a national plan less vital, a wide tier of four-year institutions and community colleges could be the largest beneficiaries of such a plan. Those institutions are also more likely to face reduced state support and have less developed international recruitment and internationalization efforts. 

“Almost every year, some community college eliminates international education because a new board member doesn’t think it is useful, and then it is gone,” says Rosalind Raby, director of California Colleges for International Education, an association of California community colleges. “It is important that the policy be enforceable and have adequate financial support and staffing.” 

Key advocates for a national plan also include executives at other bodies involved in international education, many of whom share an interest in the growth of the field and have seen the benefits of national strategies in other countries.

“As a professional community, we need to ensure that the enormous benefits of international education are publicly communicated in a way that transcends partisan and ideological preconceptions,” says Paul Schulmann, associate director of research at World Education Services, a nonprofit that supports international students and immigrants through credential evaluation services and other programs. “The benefits of a strategy are evident, hence their proliferation over the last few years.”  

The Role of Individual States

Though there is broad support for a comprehensive internationalization strategy from the U.S. international education community, barriers abound—most notably, the current political climate, the complexities of multiple federal agencies involved in such a plan, and an individual state’s roles in regulating higher education.

In her comparative analysis of nations’ internationalization strategies, Craciun found that U.S. states’ efforts fall short of comprehensive plans, which raises questions about the necessity of states occupying the internationalization regulatory field. 

Craciun found that there are very few states with an international higher education policy agenda of any kind. Most state-oriented internationalization initiatives—often taking the form of branding campaigns promoting the individual state as a destination for international students—are actually run and financed in large part by institution membership fees, not by state agencies. There is often little state funding for such efforts and a general lack of formal administrative structures at the state level to manage internationalization. Thus, it falls to the institutions to lead the charge, galvanizing state support and buy-in along the way.

“Our membership fee is $250, so with 22 member institutions, that just gets us through the year on a shoestring budget,” says Ellis of the Study Alabama Consortium. However, as a collective, the institutions have a louder voice, and could potentially guide larger statewide efforts.

“A national effort should facilitate what is going on at the local level by listening to what state initiatives need with respect to resources and administrative policies.” —Jim Ellis

Some international education experts, like Hans de Wit, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, say it is then possible for states to become more active in pushing for national action. 

“Many states are finding they have problems of local demography reducing the number of local students and [they] face a lack of state funding that increasing the number of international students could help address,” he says. “Some institutions may actually have to close. With those trends and a decline in international students, it would not be surprising to see the states say, ‘We need a more proactive policy toward international students.’” 

States should be intimately involved in a national plan, Ellis says. “A national effort should facilitate what is going on at the local level by listening to what state initiatives need with respect to resources and administrative policies,” recommends Ellis. “They need to understand what is going on in the local and regional efforts.”   

Di Maria at UMBC agrees with Ellis, stating, “[A national strategy] could provide for a bridge from practical training to H-1B status to permanent residency for individuals working in certain fields or willing to work in certain parts of the country to address shortages of highly skilled workers.” He adds, “The governors of the various states could identify such needs and priorities, and the federal government could respond accordingly.”

Questioning Voices

Institutions themselves have engaged in some national collaborative efforts regarding international students, most notably through the #YouAreWelcomeHere grassroots campaign. Despite support for the overall sentiment that international students are welcome in the United States, there is far from unanimity among U.S. higher education leaders that a formal national plan is necessary. 

Many, noting the primacy of offsetting unwelcoming immigration incidents and delays in visa processing times, as well as addressing the high cost of many tuition at many institutions, express concerns that developing a national plan could potentially divert energy from addressing those issues.  

Because the application process for Optional Practical Training (OPT) can be slow and complex, “some students are not being able to take advantage of it, since employers will only wait so long,” says Brad Farnsworth, vice president for global engagement at the American Council on Education (ACE). “We have expressed concerns regarding the issuance of visas and visa policies as a competitiveness issue.”

“It might be more effective to address those challenges with the appropriate government agencies, as opposed to assembling stakeholders and taking other steps to develop a national plan.” —Bruce Farnsworth

“The other important matter is academic research and national security, with universal agreement that the relative openness of the U.S. is a huge asset to international competitiveness and economic growth,” says Farnsworth, “but also recognizing that there are legitimate concerns about foreign influence. Our position is that there needs to be a balance.”

“My own opinion is that [a national plan] is not needed if we can deal effectively with those two key issues,” says Farnsworth. “I think it might be more effective to address those challenges with the appropriate government agencies, as opposed to assembling stakeholders and taking other steps to develop a national plan, which would be a lengthy process.”

Skeptics also note that currently there is less support for aggressive policies on promoting international education than seemed to be the case under past presidential administrations—so efforts to forge a national policy might be an uphill battle in today’s political climate. 

“Having an international higher education policy makes sense depending on who writes the policy,” says Scott Fleming, who recently retired from serving as Georgetown University's associate vice president for federal relations. “Given that the current administration proposes zeroing out funding for Title VI [of the Higher Education Act], and given its policies regarding visa issues, including student visas, I am not sure I want to see a national international student policy emerge from this administration,” Fleming says. 

Others worry that a national plan could limit the flexibility of regions or individual institutions with respect to policies for internationalization and international students.

“We should be mindful of the ways a national policy could constrain the autonomy of individual institutions and state systems and make regional policies less effective,” says Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, whose members’ needs vary. “Some already have large international student contingents and different missions, such as workforce training, diverse learning environments, and research capacity and entrepreneurship.”

Bailey at University of Southern California agrees: “I don’t think that would be helpful to have a national policy with respect to recruitment of international students,” he says. “In that regard, I think the states and individual institutions should take the lead.”

The Past and Next Steps for the Future

There have been some efforts to craft elements of internationalization plans at the national level under the Clinton and Obama administrations, notes de Wit. One surviving remnant of the Clinton administration effort is International Education Week, which was commenced by a Clinton executive order. 

And there is technically a document embodying a U.S. national strategy, though it is a very limited and high-level one. The U.S. Department of Education’s Succeeding Globally Through International Education and Engagement, enunciated in 2012 and 2018, does not specify targets. 

According to the British Council’s Americas report, the strategy’s goals “are phrased in exceedingly vague terms (e.g. ‘increase global and cultural competencies of all US students’) and do not provide any specific tasks or reference to activities in a way that represents an actual strategy.”

In some ways, says de Wit, the United States has an implicit national strategy of a collection of poorly coordinated and often conflicted objectives from the four major federal agencies that influence international students. 

“The problem is the U.S. has different, conflicting strategies that make it hard to have a national focus on recruiting international students,” he says.

Some in the field say that there are elements of the current federal administration that appear open to possibly developing a more robust and coordinated plan. ACE’s Farnsworth notes that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and others at the State Department have engaged in positive messaging regarding the value of international students to the United States “and that they are welcome here.”

Additionally, in recent years, the Commerce Department has convened some meetings with international educators, particularly study state consortia, some of which occurred at and around NAFSA’s Annual Conference. Several sources interviewed indicated that agency comments in those meetings suggested the administration might be interested in increased federal agency coordination around international student policies.  

The Commerce Department did not respond to requests for an interview and the State Department declined to participate in an interview. The Department of Education declined to comment on the desirability of a national plan but noted in a statement its commitment “to ensuring that America’s students can be globally competitive and prepared for college and careers in a world that is increasingly interconnected. The Department does not actively recruit international students per se. We understand that American students can gain cultural and global competencies by interacting with people from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. At the same time, we are working to improve cybersecurity protocols to protect students as well as to protect intellectual property and research results.”

Anticipating Change

The United States has long enjoyed its top spot as a destination country for international students seeking to study abroad, but increased competition and other factors make the idea of a U.S. national strategy for international education more relevant with each year’s declining enrollment numbers. 

Though there is far from consensus on what such a plan might look like or how it would be executed, “there is no reason to abandon hope that a national strategy will come to fruition, even if it is not politically feasible at the moment,” says Schulmann from World Education Services. “While we might not have an ideal scenario for developing a national strategy, things change.”  

Whether things change sooner or years later, international education experts agree that there is work to be done and positive momentum to build upon in creating a comprehensive international educations strategy in the United States.  •


A National Strategy: NAFSA’s Stance 

NAFSA has long called for the development of a U.S. international student recruitment strategy, and over the past year, has been actively advocating with members of Congress to establish such a strategy. In May 2019, NAFSA released a report titled Losing TalentAn Economic and Foreign Policy Risk America Can’t Ignore that reiterated this position.  

A comprehensive plan “could state that welcoming international students and scholars is a priority, and that the following resources are necessary to accomplish that,” says Rebecca Morgan, NAFSA’s senior director of media relations and advocacy. “It could also prioritize the diversification of recruitment of international students from more than a few key sending markets.”  

A national recruitment strategy would shift the United States into a proactive posture, demonstrating that the U.S. government is serious about attracting a diverse pool of talented individuals to study or conduct research at its institutions of higher education. Similar efforts are underway in other nations, yielding the benefits of their investments. 

“A coordinated national strategy for international student recruitment could be extremely helpful in assisting disparate players on the same higher education playing field to move in the same direction together, rather than in a piecemeal fashion,” says Morgan.

Such a plan would rely on active collaboration between government, higher education institutions, and international exchange organizations—and the result would be a strategic plan for enhancing global competitiveness with respect to attracting international students, scientists, and scholars from a wide variety of cultures, backgrounds, and perspectives to the United States.

Morgan notes that existing efforts by NAFSA and other institutions are separately addressing other aspects of internationalization, such as outbound study by U.S. students. 

There is widespread support across the nation, for example, for the Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Program Act, which would create a program of challenge grants to incentivize colleges and universities to make study abroad an integral part of higher education. First introduced in 2006, the bill has been continuously reintroduced. It passed the House of Representatives in two previous Congresses, has enjoyed strong bipartisan support, and was reintroduced in 2019. 

Read more about NAFSA’s stance on developing a national international education strategy at nafsa.org/welcometosucceed.

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NAFSA: Association of International Educators is the world's largest nonprofit association dedicated to international education and exchange. NAFSA's 10,000 members are located at more than 3,500 institutions worldwide, in over 150 countries.