in International Education:
The Lost Edge?
Dr. Ted Sanders, President
Southern Illinois University
years higher education in the United States has enjoyed a preeminent
position in the world of international education, attracting students
in large numbers from other countries to its colleges and universities.
Foreign enrollment in the U.S. rose steadily from a relatively
modest 34,232 in 1954, to a record setting 457,984 students in
1996-97. Peak growth occurred from 1975 to 1980, when enrollment
in the U.S. almost doubled. Troubling, however, is the dramatically
slowed rate of increase, from 4.5% in 1992-93 to a virtual standstill
(0.3%) in 1995-96. Of particular concern is the fact that in 1996-97
there was only a slight rise in the number of foreign students
coming to the United States from Japan, South Korea, and Malaysia,
countries which provide a large proportion of our foreign enrollment.
1.3 million students pursued education outside their home countries
during the 1980s. The United States attracted roughly 40% of them,
but now enrolls only 32%.1 From 1994 to 1996, Taiwan
sent 10.2 % fewer students to the U.S., India 5.3% fewer, Hong Kong
7.1% fewer, and Mexico 3.5% fewer.2 There is no
doubt that the United States has lost its competitive edge as a
world leader in international education.
Cause and the Cost
to be many reasons for the decline. Among them are complacency,
rising relative costs to attend our colleges and universities,
unwillingness of state and federal governments to spend more money
to attract foreign students, changes in political and economic
conditions in a number of countries, and stepped up efforts by
others to obtain an increasing share of the lucrative international
that past successes have contributed to a complacent attitude
on the part of many institutions in the U.S. The seemingly never-ending
growth in the number of students coming into the country, along
with a lack of serious competition, has caused us to miss the
need to pay close attention to competing developments around the
government may pay a high cost for its failure to foster a spirit
of strong and vital entrepreneurship in international education.
Students from around the world broaden and enrich the intellectual
and social climate of our institutions, providing young Americans
with invaluable understanding and appreciation of other peoples
and cultures. It is also true that in a period when public support
of U.S. higher education is diminishing and the costs of maintaining
and improving quality are rising, new revenue streams are essential.
Foreign students in the United States inject about $7.8 billion
annually in tuition, fees and living expenses into our local economies.
And their presence creates an additional 100,000 jobs in the U.S.3
even more important, a strong international student and alumni
network helps to build the kinds of long-term relationships and
trust essential for the U.S. to be an effective global citizen
and global competitor. When enrollment declines, we lose far more
than tuition dollars. We begin to lose the opportunity to make
important friends around the world. Our positive international
influence in the world depends on others understanding and appreciating
American culture. International education is a key element in
achieving that goal, so sustained support for this powerful instrument
of foreign policy should be near the top of the agenda for Congress
and the President. Unfortunately, that does not seem to be the
Creative and Committed Competition
States has traditionally relied heavily on its overseas educational
advising centers, supported by the United States Information Agency,
to provide information about U.S. higher education to prospective
foreign students. Yet, federal funds to support these centers have
steadily diminished, forcing some of them to close and services
to be cut in others.4 While the United States government
is decreasing its support for recruiting foreign students, other
nations, particularly Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom,
are actively promoting their colleges and universities around the
world. Enrollment of foreign students in higher education has become
big business and is now an integral part of strategic planning by
governments in many countries. Australia, for instance, actively
promotes its attractive lifestyle, its wide range of high quality
curricula, and the value received for a dollar spent to potential
foreign students. The Australian International Education Foundation,
established in 1994, also markets Australian education by linking
it with trade, investment, and diplomacy. Australia is one of the
first countries to develop an international alumni-networking system,
and it is the first to host a convention including foreign alumni
from all its universities. Australia's alumni in Singapore number
about 50,000; in Indonesia, between 40,000 and 50,000; while in
Malaysia, Australian alumni exceed 120,000.5 Australia's
share of international student enrollment has increased steadily
from 1.6% in 1985 to 3.3% in 1994.6
also becoming a serious competitor in international education. It
offers comparatively low educational costs and is a big spender
in recruiting foreign students. Its Educational Counseling Service
actively promotes British education, particularly in Southeast Asia.
And these strategies appear to be working. During 1996-97, Asian
enrollment in British universities was up 27% from the year before,
and has increased an average of 20% annually since 1992-93.7
Demand and Greater Opportunity:
A New Chance at Leadership
economic crisis in Asia has been an important factor for many
international students in selecting Australia, Canada, and Britain
as alternatives to the U.S. for their studies. Even though this
trend had begun before the crisis, the affordability of study
in these countries has made them more attractive. During 1996-97,
Asian students comprised 57.6% of foreign student enrollment in
the U.S. Asian countries providing the most students were Japan
(46,292), China (42,503), Korea (37,130), India (30,641), and
for significant growth over the next several years remains great.
Projections for 1995-2010 are that Asia will need an additional
800,000 international university places, and another 1.5 million
places will be needed in the following 15 years.8
Of the 200 million people in Indonesia, 26 million are between the
ages of 15 and 25.9 Indonesia's colleges and universities
cannot hope to meet that demand for higher education in their country.
Other projections indicate that the world population of college-age
students will grow by 100 million over the next 10 years. These
burgeoning youth populations, particularly in countries which appreciate
the importance of a well-educated citizenry to their development
plans, will provide new opportunities for America to regain its
preeminence in international education. But nations facing many
competing needs for limited resources will be careful shoppers in
the world education market. They will look for the most cost-effective
way to provide needed education services, and they will be reluctant
to put scarce capital into providing their own classrooms, labs,
and dormitories. Alternatives which provide high quality services
at low cost and at the same time diminish or even eliminate the
need for expensive local infrastructure will define the market.
for any serious effort on our part to retain a leading role in international
education is for the federal government to recognize, both in policy
and action, that it is in the national interest to do so. It must
restore and enhance its tangible support for international efforts
and provide such support within the framework of a clearly defined
strategy. Opportunities for technologically advanced, cost-effective
higher education delivery systems that have expensive infrastructures
already in place may be unparalleled in history. The challenge for
America will be to offer the most affordable higher education, and
technological superiority may provide the avenue for us to do that.
If we are to maintain our position of leadership in this important
area and make the contribution to world society expected of us,
we must begin to emulate the enlightened policies of other advanced
nations who have seen the future of international education and
are actively pursuing it.
1. The Chronicle
of Higher Education, Dec. 6, 1996.
2. Open Doors, 1995-96.
3. Open Doors, 1996-97.
4. The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 28, 1998.
5. The Strait Times, April 27, 1998.
6. Open Doors, 1995-96.
7. Asian Wall Street Journal, October 20, 1997.
8. Open Doors, 1995-96, p. 12.
9. Meeting Notes, IIE Tenth Biennial Educational Association Seminar
on International Education, 1998.