Let's not squander our investment in international education

by Sophia Howlett

Sophie HowlettThe United States has a fine history of opening its doors to those who wish to study here. We offer some of the best schools in the world. We strive for a higher education environment that inspires innovation and creativity, and we attract the best from across the world. Some of these extraordinary individuals stay and add to our national identity as innovators and doers. Some will go home to lead their own organizations, nonprofits and governments.

Those who do go home take with them not only what they have learned in their U.S. classroom, but everything they have seen and experienced of this country during their stay: the big hearts of our citizens, the openness to exchange in our local fora, and the dream that each citizen carries of what they think America is, and should be.

As our universities gather and send forth the talented and forward-thinking: an extensive network of individuals across the world who predominantly think of us as their friend, and who, even in bad times, will remember those that provided them with opportunities and friendship.

International students also add to our communities in important ways. We keep our creative edge when we have a diversity of voices contributing to our knowledge production. We challenge ourselves and others when we recognize multiple points of view. We burst the bubbles in which we tend to live when we recognize a bigger picture.

With a global dimension to our classrooms, we learn different ways to approach health care or the environment, to think about social equality, to do business that makes sense across borders. Some perspectives reinforce our commitment to our values, some change the way we think about the complex problems confronting our country today.

In economic terms, the international student market across the United States adds substantially to a vital economic engine. Universities are not just places where people study, or the battlegrounds of the culture wars. America’s 8,000 learning institutions were expected to generate more than $550 billion in revenues in 2017 and up to $700 billion by 2024 (U.S. State Department’s Open Doors 2016). Four million teachers, scholars, administrators, food service professionals, engineers, and construction workers are employed directly and indirectly at U.S. colleges and universities – even more than those associated with the automotive sector. This makes one very good reason why we compete fiercely with countries such as the United Kingdom and Australia to bring students into the United States.

For these reasons, it’s important to reflect on the environment of uncertainty and vulnerability that we have created during the past year. Prospective students can no longer know if they will be welcome here. They see footage of extremists in U.S. cities and on our campuses; mismanaged and changeable “travel bans”; and government officials apparently unable to condemn discrimination and human rights violations. Given a choice, these students may well opt for more welcoming locations.

Losing these students is bad business after decades of hard work and substantial capital investments to build U.S. higher education as a global product with an outstanding reputation. When the best and the brightest from overseas decide to look elsewhere, we promote the “Little America” that so many of us fear. When we close borders and build walls, it isolates us from innovation and promotes an atmosphere of less security, more hate, less understanding, more intolerance.

We must remember the importance of the international dimension to our campuses, livelihoods and communities, and determine to preserve and expand what we have worked so hard to build.