The problem began with official xenophobia: visas were hard to get. Then came COVID. International students can’t get here, or risk not being able to get home. What are the consequences for American higher education? And for the individual “domestic” student?

Education becomes less cosmopolitan. Which means that all students miss out on the stimulation that difference provides: hearing foreign languages and opinions; realizing that others weren’t necessarily brought up and educated like us; getting to know new sorts of people. Just hearing new accents is a learning experience for many Mainers. Making connections: given the chance, American students visit their new friends abroad. And eating new foods: relatives of international students have introduced new cuisines and restaurants around universities; it’s amazing what Asian student demand can do for the quality of rice-based dishes on campus.

Foreign students’ different backgrounds, needs, and expectations push some American faculty to reconsider their subject matter and teaching technique; that’s always a good thing.

Exclusively national higher education loses global influence. Graduates of American institutions go home to govern and manage a lot of the world, to join alumni associations, to send their children, to understand America. (International graduates aren’t just useful to the United States. Australian universities are educating their third generation of influential Southeast Asians, who support Australian interests in trade, defense, cultural exchange…)

There are many kinds of foreign students. Some come from countries without good domestic institutions. More from countries with limited, fiercely competitive or restrictive higher education. Many because an American education, in English, is seen as a good investment, locally and globally. Generally speaking, they bring welcome money. Harvard recruits the best brains; Podunk fills up its numbers.

The best foreign graduate students come to the U.S. Undergraduates pay a lot of money into college coffers, but intellectually the post-grads are the important thing. After their time at Berkeley, MIT, Michigan, or wherever, they tend to stay in America, adding the brightest of half the world’s population to our own high flyers.

Of course, international study shouldn’t be one-way traffic. When pandemic permits, American students should do their damnedest to get overseas. But that’s another column.

David R. Jones has taught, recruited, and been an international student. He remains impressed by the Chinese passion for study abroad.

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: