What Will the Field of International Higher Education Look Like in 5 Years?

Every November for the past 100 years, the Institute of International Education (IIE) has been collecting data on international education. The data collected there, self-reported by approximately 3,000 educational institutions, answer these two questions: Who studies in the United States? Who studies abroad?

By writing this feature, I rooted my own experiences – working with international student services for over seven years and managing a study abroad program for nearly five years – in answering the following question:

What will the field of international higher education look like in five years?

Upon reflecting upon trends in international higher education, including trends in immigration and pop culture, these are the three directions I believe our field will take in the next five years:

  • Canada will continue to draw international students. We can learn from this.
  • South Korea and the Korean language will increase in popularity, whether we’re ready or not. Here’s how we can ride the “Korean wave.”
  • Universities in the U.S. will have to hold themselves accountable through assessment; study abroad offices are no different. Consequently, assessment and scholar-practitioners will be more highly valued and sought after. I’ve listed a few things we can do.

The Compass Points North: Canada’s Moment to Shine

By now, it’s no secret that fewer international students are choosing to study in the U.S. In the last year alone, new international student enrollment decreased by 6.6%. Based on conversations I’ve had with colleagues working in international student offices, the 2017-18 academic year numbers will be lower still. We haven’t seen this drop in enrollment since the lean years following September 11, 2001.

Other countries are more successful than this one. Specifically, across the border in Canada new international student enrollment has hit an “unprecedented” high while enrollment numbers in Australia have “jumped by a staggering 80% in the past five years.” The numbers were so clear that the CEO of IIE explained, “For the first time, we [in the U.S.] have real competition.”

This is a new era for Canada, whose numbers have been modest but not brag-worthy until recently. There will be a lot to boast about in the next five years. As Karin Fischer writes in her exceptional Latitudes newsletter, “the new Canadian international enrollment figures … should give American colleges heartburn.”

The Canadian Bureau for International Education (CBIE) happily announced that 95% of international students “recommend Canada as a study destination” and that there is a 119% “increase in international student population in Canada” in the past seven years. Canadian student visas are easier than ever to apply for, and “tuition and the cost of living is lower there in comparison to competing countries thanks to the current value of the Canadian dollar,” Forbes explained recently. One government website launched mere months ago chirps with the promise: “stay in Canada after graduation,” it appeals, or “even live permanently.”

One of my favorite examples of a city-sponsored welcome is Toronto’s, which sponsors an airport welcome program and celebrates an annual international student festival.

Across the border, the mood has been decidedly blue with universities like the University of Illinois preparing for the worst. So it is jarring to compare Canada’s cheery approach with the gloomy U.S. Everything’s coming up maple leaves.

A billboard from 2013 from San Francisco, but the sentiment may be stronger now.

While we expect to see more international students study in Canada in the next few years, there’s no reason why the U.S. and other countries cannot learn from the Great White North, and adapt. Here are four things Canada can teach us:

  • Welcome our guests: State and local governments can create arrival programs for international students such as those offered by Ontario (similarly, Sydney, Australia offers an airport program).
  • Offer guidance on immigration pathways: Institutions can provide information on the pathway between student visa to permanent residency, like the Government of Canada.
  • Provide financial support: Just like the Government of Canada, federal governments can broaden financial aid by offering scholarships to non-citizens. In contrast to their northern neighbor, most international student scholarships in the U.S. are offered by private organizations.
  • Provide career support:. Institutions can host international student career fairs such as the one held by the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.

The Korean Wave is Here

Recently, I served as a first-time reader for the Critical Language Scholarship. Though I was only reading a small batch of applications, I quickly noticed that most of them were applying to study Korean.

These numbers reflect a national trend. While U.S. students study foreign languages, even Spanish, less, they study Korean more. A recent Modern Language Association (MLA) study reports that Korean language study has increased nationwide by as much as 45%. The author notes: “The 15 most widely taught languages in 2016 saw declines from 2013 except for Japanese and Korean.” This is remarkable, considering that only two percent of approximately 5,000 U.S. colleges and universities offer Korean-language programs. Supply isn’t meeting demand.

There are many reasons why a new generation of students are traveling to and studying in Korea.  One of those reasons has been expertly pointed out by authors such as Euny Hong in her 2014 book The Birth of Korean Cool: the “hallyu” Korean pop culture wave has been responsible for introducing K-beauty and K-pop to consumers around the world. For instance, the Korean beauty market is now one of the top 10 beauty markets in the world, selling billions of dollars of products. At the same time, the boy band BTS recently broke the record – twice – for the biggest 24-hour YouTube music video debut. With over two million foreign residents, Korea draws people from around the globe, of which U.S. citizens comprise six percent; in fact, Seoul is consistently placed in the top 10 QS Best Student Cities, a list that includes favorites such as London, Berlin, and Paris.

Yet in the field of international education, few people watch this trend. For example, a 2014 International Educator article implied that most students choosing to study abroad in Korea were Korean-Americans (“What Takes U.S. Students to Korea?”). However, it is clear to me that Korea is more than just a heritage-seeking study destination. This wave is only building speed, for students of all backgrounds.

Photo: Andrea Björsell (Finnair).

Here are three ways we can promote the Korean wave:

  • Offer more study abroad options to Korea: USAC, TEAN, ISA, CIEE, and CISAbroad all offer study abroad options to Korea, but many others do not. International education organizations could seek ways to increase their program options in Northeast Asian countries Japan and Korea, both popular locations.
  • Reach out to Korean programs: If your campus has a Korean language program (mine does), study abroad staff should reach out and collaborate with these language programs so as to provide a pipeline for students who are studying Korean as a second language. My own experience has proven successful, as word of mouth increases the chance that friends of study abroad returnees will go abroad each year.
  • Promote government scholarships: The government of Korea, similar to the Japanese government, provides multiple scholarships for international students, offering as much as $500 USD per month for exchange students’ living expenses. Given budget housing costs (as low as $300 USD per month for a goshiwon), these scholarships can make the country very affordable, particularly for students who may rely on scholarships or be living away from family for the first time.

Making Ourselves Accountable: A New Era for Assessment

Where are we going as a field? What aspects of internationalization are more effective than others? Longitudinal research on student mobility and learning outcomes has existed for decades, answering thick questions such as these. Organizations like IES Abroad and the American Institute for Foreign Study (AIFS) have long recognized the impact of applied research. AIFS has collected alumni surveys for 37 years and IES recently published the results of a 50-year alumni survey. Our standard-bearer for 100 years, IIE collects annual data on where, when, and what students study around the globe.

Academic, peer-reviewed research also exists, often focusing on study abroad’s impact on second language acquisition (Segalowitz & Freed, 2004), careers (Norris & Gillespie, 2008), and intercultural communication (Anderson, Lawton, Rexeisen, & Hubbard, 2006; Williams, 2005). Emerging research is being written on minority identities abroad; for instance, IIE recently published a white paper on underrepresented students (Engel, 2017). However, the scholarship is still emerging, causing researchers Orosz and Crăciun (2019) to point out a “dearth of evidence” for the impact of study abroad:

“It is perhaps not too much of an overstatement to say that one of the biggest failures of international higher education cooperation over the past 25 years has been the inability to thoroughly demonstrate its added value by means of rigorous empirical research.”

Furthermore, in an era of rising tuition rates and a student loan crisis, universities are under scrutiny. How can universities justify their decisions to fund and maintain internationalization programs such as study abroad? In academia and particularly public higher education, we need to ask a difficult question such as this: if we send students abroad, are we causing them to graduate later, in further debt? Those of us at universities, especially state universities, will be called upon to justify not only the impact of study abroad on our students’ careers but also their time-to-graduation. We are accountable to our students and the public.

Consequently, assessment and scholar-practitioners will become more highly valued. International educators need to discern where our field will develop and the quality of our work. I suggest a few ways we can make ourselves more accountable as a field:

  • Design internal, diagnostic assessment. This applied approach to research can take the form of an online survey for students or focus groups designed to ask study abroad returnees about reasons they chose to study abroad. If you submit your institution’s annual Open Doors data, you may look at your own data to parse out who’s studying abroad, where they’re studying, and for how long.
  • Examine students’ time-to-graduation and retention rates. If you’re working at a university, you may find this information, as I did, in your institutional effectiveness office. The director provided information to me, from which I could see that our graduation rates among those studied abroad and had already graduated averaged 4.94 years-to-graduation if they enrolled as freshmen, and averaged 2.69 years-to-gradation if they enrolled as transfer students. On first glance, these numbers did appear lower than our overall institutional time-to-graduation, though it is worthwhile to explore data.
  • Collaborate with those in your community interested in producing academic research. Having a doctoral degree is not necessary to dive into the wonderful, sometimes maddening world of academic research, but it helps if someone you work with has had experience. Opportunities to participate as a scholar-practitioner are ubiquitous, such as volunteering as a reader or peer editor for an academic journal. At the very least, you can read the latest articles in Frontiers, International EducatorThe Journal of Comparative & International Education, and Journal of Studies in International Education, among others.

Photo: rawpixel.com (Pexels).

Final Thoughts on Our Future

In writing this post, I thought carefully and at length about what I wanted to discuss (that’s why it took me two months to prepare). During my drafting process, I also reached out to a few colleagues, all of whom seemed to have different ideas of what the next five years would look like. It turns out that predicting the future isn’t so easy. Here are four selected ideas I wanted to share with you.

Amy Wang, Director of International Programs at Cal State LA, pointed out that – due to low enrollment by international degree-seeking (F-1) students in the U.S. – there may be an increase in exchange programs for J-1 international students.

Malaika Marable Serrano (LinkedIn), Associate Vice President of University Partnerships at International Studies Abroad (ISA) shared:

I think the future of IE will need to address our rapidly changing demographics, Gen Z’s (and their parents) insistence on ROI and career readiness, integration of on-line learning and learners, and shifting funding models for education abroad offices and the wider institution.

Kelsey Toyoda, (LinkedIn), M.A. Candidate in International Education at SIT Graduate Institute, was succinct in her three predictions:

“I would say continued increase in the role of technology in the field, a focus on mental health, and/or increased parent involvement in study abroad.”

Alessandra Capossela (LinkedIn), Assistant Director of International Programs at Middlebury College, made a strong point that we may be not be challenging our students:

“Much like higher education in the U.S. in general, I think there is potential to trend towards programs that provide an ‘easy’ and ‘fun’ experience abroad; one that students will be excited to Instagram to their friends and family back home. For me, this is a negative trend because making the experience more stress-free and ‘fun’ means that these programs are preventing students from having the opportunity to face challenges head-on, navigate them successfully, and learn about themselves and what they’re capable of in the process. I do think it’s good to provide support and guidance to students who are looking to go abroad. However, with the growing inclination to treat students (and their parents) like customers (with the motto still being ‘the customer is always right’), and the growing competition in the field of education abroad, I wonder if some providers are feeling pressure to remove any and all barriers, difficulties, or snafus for their students before they even occur.”

What about you? What do you believe the field of international higher education will look like in five years?

Cover Image: Porapak Apichodilok (Pexels)

16 thoughts on “What Will the Field of International Higher Education Look Like in 5 Years?

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