International Students

International Students

More than a few op-eds have appeared in recent weeks noting preparation and execution of contingency class, travel, and accommodation plans for international students has proven shameful. While University administrators are working around the clock to ensure class quality doesn't drop, it is the international students who have still largely been left high and dry.

University administrators may not see quarterly budgets of their institutions, but from the viewpoint of these profit and loss statements and the university's future reputation, international students are the last ones that should be ignored in this moment crisis. Further, once these students are back on campus in 2020 or 2021, there will likely be simultaneously greater difficulties and fewer resources for them to cope with these challenges.

This is not a call for fringe diversity and inclusion initiatives. This is a moment of reckoning that will define global reputations for universities for decades to come. They should take note.

The scale of the problem is not small. In the United States, half of international students hail from China or India. China makes up a third in total. After India, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Canada round out the top five. In the UK, international students represent nearly a fifth of all university students, with China and India once again the large contributors, with the US, Hong Kong, and Malaysia close behind. The number of international students has swelled in top-tier universities over the past two decades, more than doubling in the UK since 2000. International students in universities around the world number in the mid single-digit millions, with roughly one million in the United States alone.

The trope of international students paying full-fare for university, while exceptions abound, is known as the rule. Administrators at public universities in the U.S., while they would never put pen to paper saying as much, all know that international students help underwrite the cost of instate students. This so true that international student recruitment firms can be paid thousands of dollars per matriculating student that meanders through the gates of U.S. colleges. And now?

With bungled lodging and transportation arrangements, unclear policies on student visas, and in some cases flat out bans from entering countries, many international students are debating whether or not to even return to school this coming fall. The uncertainty is palpable. Ironically, it isn't the students who are sweating. It's the administrators.

According to a recent Beijing Overseas Student Study Association survey of 9,000 students, approximately 86% of Chinese students wish to return to China, at least in the short term. Many are unable to return home due to lack of flights, though would choose to do so, given the opportunity.

Legends of chartered flights and $30,000 tickets may be just that, legend. But the message is clear: students are not satisfied. They want out - at least for the time being. While exact dollar amounts are unclear, what is undeniable is that colleges will suffer financially from an international student pullback in the coming years. This, on top of endowments battered by stock market uncertainty, potentially negative yields on treasuries, cash-strapped private market investments, sagging real estate, and crippled alumni giving does not paint a bright financial picture. While it may be crass to put in print, universities must focus on retaining their most 'profitable' students.

While perhaps true in the short term, this doubly true over the coming years. Let's assume for a moment that the university, with a militia of the world's greatest minds and problem solvers, are able to navigate the next 24-36 months. What then? Alumni providing referrals to potential applicants, supporting admissions departments in recruiting, and even hosting prospective student gathers are the lifeblood of overseas student recruitment. The risk of losing your strongest advocates and most potent marketing team is not a slight one. There are few things that bring parents more pride than to share with their community of the amazing experiences their children had at university. These are multi-year and potentially multigenerational soapboxes on which university brands can grandstand. Yet today it appears that the short-term-ism of these so-called 'lifelong' learning institutions is sadly winning out. Today, a university diploma is no more valuable than its brand. The alumni base are stewards of the brand.

These bad reviews may not show up on Yelp, but they do appear over tea at the Four Seasons in Mumbai, Shanghai, and Lagos.

Let's assume for a moment that the universities have handled this perfectly. We can give them the benefit of the doubt that this was indeed so unexpected that no contingency plan could have possibly been generated and that they simply did the best they could. Okay - they are forgiven. So what now? How can they prepare international students for re-entry?

Alas, it won't be so easy. We can be nearly sure that the International Student Coordinators, the Associate Deans of International Enrollment, and the Vice Provosts of International Student Life will be among the first cost-cutting victims at most schools. Calls have been and will continue to prune the bloated administrative ranks at most schools and it is not without reason. Academic consulting firm ABC Insights noted that since 2013, the average spending on campus administrative positions has exceeded direct teaching expenses. When schools are looking to balance their budgets, they will do what corporate America might define as 'tightening the belt,' - do more with less. Regrettably, these low and mid-level administrative positions will be seen as a 'nice-to-have,' and not a 'must-have.' This in turn will perpetuate the challenges that international students will face upon returning to campus.

The exact time of return to campus is unknown and outside the scope of your correspondents' confidence intervals. What is a near-certainty is that the xenophobia and hate speech that has been stoking a humanity-long challenge of 'otherism' has perhaps reached its modern apex. In the US, the 'China Virus,' will not be forgotten for generations. In China, the quarantining of black Africans will not go quietly into the night. In Europe, The Netherlands and Germany refusing to 'go dutch' with the rest of the EU on Corona bonds may be the death knell for the modern governance experiment that was the EU. Expect tensions existing in the wake of the ongoing European refugee crises will be revisited again and again as the debates unfold in Brussels if the Union will even continue.

Students from all over the world will not be able to escape their identities being attacked. And who will they turn to, now that the ostensibly overpaid administrator whose responsibility it was to be available for this student, in a time of need, has been furloughed. An online therapist? Their parents back home? It will be a messy situation and pitifully difficult time for international students. We can only hope that universities combine resources regionally or creatively find other solutions to these issues.

Woefully-trained and poorly-equipped Resident Advisors or Hall Monitors will not be a satisfactory answer.

The most realistic outcome? International students retreat into their conclave of fellow countrymen, thereby defeating most of the original purpose of studying abroad. A sad reality for students who have worked diligently their entire lives to fulfill their parents' dreams, only to find the school of their dreams was ill-equipped first to support them in a time of crisis and then once again to support them in times of personal need once they return to campus.

Schools who are serious about their long term financial health, international reputation, and most importantly, the well-being of their students, will navigate these choppy waters. For those who don't, they should expect to see a precipitous decline in qualified international enrollments. While university bureaucrats may perceive the result unsporting, it won't be undeserved.