In the past several decades, the world has experienced an explosion of student mobility that transcends domestic borders. The United States has benefited greatly from this trend—there were a record 765,000 international students studying at U.S. colleges and universities during the 2011-12 academic year—but this is changing, and quickly. China is spending a quarter trillion dollars a year on its own educational institutions, working quickly not just to keep their own students, but to bring in others from all over the world.
And they aren’t alone. In what may seem to be a strange turn, U.S. students may well find an affordable and high quality alternative—abroad.
South Korea, for example, is in the process of establishing its first “global” university in Incheon. The goal is to recruit 60 percent of the student body from outside South Korea, including a surprising 25 percent of the overall student population targeted to be from the United States.
They are actively recruiting U.S. educational partners to develop the capacity to teach in English and attract non-Korean students, and private and public equity dollars are pouring in, leading to tuition prices that are roughly half of U.S. standards.
And competition won’t just be around price. Indonesia, Dubai, Qatar, Singapore, Turkey and Vietnam are all actively growing programs with academic standards that could quickly rival our own.
So what does this mean for U.S. institutions that have traditionally enjoyed a virtual monopoly in the educational space?
To answer this question, we first need to understand why international students leave their homeland to study abroad. Like students here in the United States, they seek an American-style education because it is currently seen as the most reliable path to better jobs and a better economic life.
The key word there is “currently”. And it is our job to ensure it doesn’t become “formerly”.
One important first step is to stop focusing on just one country. For many U.S. educational institutions, an “international” strategy was little more than a China strategy; according to the Institute of International Education, Chinese students accounted for almost all of the international student growth in the U.S. in the past several years.
But Northeastern University has for years been working to diversify our international efforts in the face of the changing environment. We have students on coop in 93 countries. We have grown our study abroad and international dialogue programs. We’ve developed innovative international options such as our Bachelor of Science in International Business and our nationally renowned NUin program. We’ve launched professional doctorate programs in Hong Kong and graduate programs in Turkey, Australia and Vietnam. Our international pathway programs now span Asia and Africa. This is a robust international strategy that serves both international and domestic students.
And at the core of it all is our goal of positioning our students—globally—as the most employable graduates. If, at the end of their time with us, these international students are not better positioned for good jobs and long, productive careers, then we haven’t fulfilled our promise to them—and the prospective students who follow them into higher education will aggressively look for colleges and universities that can help them achieve their goals.
We are soon coming to the day when it will not be enough to rely exclusively on a strong American brand to attract international students. An institution will need to quickly prove itself capable of educating students for the technologically and culturally complex workforce of tomorrow. Otherwise we risk losing these vital future graduates who bring so much to our educational institutions, economies and cultures.