An unusual thing happened at the EducationUSA Forum last month. You know you’re in uncharted territory when every higher education news outlet (and even one or two business ones) universally praises a move by the U.S. government the way they did during the week of the Forum at the end of July. Rarer still is the topic on which news media reported: the push to develop a U.S. government strategy for international education.
First steps taken
In the opening plenary in video messages from Secretary of State Blinken and Secretary of Education Mendoza, a new phase for international education began with the release of a joint statement covering ten principles including a “coordinated national approach to international education,” and “a strong focus on international education as part of the nation’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic in order to build back better at home, maintain U.S. global leadership, and promote equitable access to the benefits (and to) welcome international students, researchers, scholars, and educators to the United States in a safe and secure manner.” Importantly, this message represented a significant step forward by having State, Education, Commerce, and Homeland Security all recognizing the “significant benefits of international students, researchers, scholars, and exchange alumni” to the United States and agreeing to cooperate on “implementing policies, procedures, and protocols so as to facilitate international education and authorized practical experiences while promoting program integrity and protecting national security.” This level of professed agreement in principle, on behalf of the federal government, is truly a monumental first step forward.
Taking a global perspective
As we discussed in the 6 Ps of Strategic International Enrollment Management series, the first P is all about having the right perspective. In the U.S. government statement, and several of the commentaries, particular references were made to how other key English-speaking destinations had taken a government-led approach to promote their nations to international students. Canada’s streamlined study-to-work-to-residency immigration system, the UK’s reintroduction of the two-year, post-study work visa as part of a larger coordinated international educational policy, and pre-Covid, Australia’s willingness to invest in policies and procedures that easily facilitated large flows of overseas students are all excellent examples of what governments can do. For some examples of how the language has shifted with this new joint statement, look no further than a recent Forbes article quote: “Indeed, with universities essentially serving as a gateway to secure the world’s best global talent, competition to attract international students has become increasingly keen in recent years. Traditional Anglophone destinations such as the US, UK, Canada, and Australia now contend with the recruitment efforts of non-traditional host countries China, Japan, and the Netherlands, amongst others, that often offer cheaper tuition and attractive internship and work opportunities.” Moreover, this distinction in the different approach the U.S. has taken from the federal level compared to competitor nations is summed up well in a Chronicle article on this matter: “Unlike many other Western countries, the United States has never had a coordinated national strategy for attracting international students or encouraging other forms of global academic collaboration. That’s alarmed international-education groups, which worry that America could lose its competitive edge as the global contest for talented students heats up.” Clearly, the United States needs to invest the time, initiative, and funding to pursue a strategic plan for internationalization to keep up. Recognizing you have a problem is always the first step toward a positive change of direction. With this new perspective on the U.S.’s position in the world of global student mobility, and recognizing how handicapped we have become due to the disjointed nature of policy and regulations impacting international students, we can begin to move forward together as a country.
Long time coming
International educators in the U.S. have been crying out for the federal government to speak with one voice when it comes to matters of promoting the country as a welcoming destination for students and scholars from around the world. Strangely enough, international education has traditionally been a “white hat” issue that enjoys generally bipartisan support in Congress and most administrations, both Republican and Democrat. However, we haven’t yet seen the political will and capital being expended to begin the larger conversation. The last time most folks can remember something like this joint statement being discussed was back in April 2000, in the final year of the Clinton administration, when a policy memorandum directed then-Vice President Al Gore to coordinate the U.S. government’s international education strategy. With Gore’s defeat in the 2000 elections and 9/11 happening shortly after President Bush took office, any chance of a coordinated policy withered on the vine.
Projecting next steps
Perhaps the international education membership organization that best reflects the collective euphoria of this U.S. government announcement is NAFSA. Here’s what NAFSA President, Esther Brimmer, had to say in the official NAFSA statement: “Establishing a national strategy to proactively welcome international talent and compete for the world’s best and brightest will undoubtedly contribute to our nation’s global leadership, economic strength, and innovation. U.S. students also benefit from global experiences provided by access to study abroad, interactions with international student peers, and an internationalized campus. We should prioritize these opportunities.” NAFSA’s recommendations, many of which were proposed at the beginning of the year as President Biden took office in January, certainly reflect what this administration has already done, like repealing the travel bans and D/S elimination proposal from the Trump years. Preserving Optional Practical Training, as well as reestablishing efficient customer service in USCIS (which oversees OPT processing) also seem to have been addressed. These international student advisers’ comments reflect a sea change in attitude and responsiveness at USCIS, which had racked up serious delays in processing student paperwork. In my opinion, four suggestions proposed by NAFSA, other prominent international educators, and myself, if implemented, would be more dramatic than the introduction of STEM OPT in 2008 and would represent true game-changing evidence of the United States’ intent moving forward.
Create a high-level, coordinated strategy to bring the best and brightest to the U.S. - a public/private collaborative effort.
Address the one online class per term limit for F-1 students, recognizing new methodologies.
Make F-1 student visa category dual intent – eliminating the need for 214b visa denials.
Allow a direct path to lawful permanent residence (green card) for F-1 university graduates.
While I am cautiously optimistic about this impressive first step, I grew up in Missouri. Show me.