The White Paper

Cause and Cost

Creative and
Committed Competition

Growing Demand

Leadership in International Education:
The Lost Edge?

Dr. Ted Sanders, President
Southern Illinois University

Warning Signs

For many 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.

Approximately 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.

The Cause and the Cost

There appear 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 student market.

It appears 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 world.

The U.S. 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

Probably 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 case.

Creative and Committed Competition

The United 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 

Britain is 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 

Growing Demand and Greater Opportunity:
A New Chance at Leadership

The recent 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 Taiwan (30,487).

The potential 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.

A precondition 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.

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