Responding to Inside Higher Ed’s “Coming in 2017” Opinion Piece

A few days ago, L.M. Rudgers and J.A. Peterson released an opinion article in Inside Higher Ed entitled “Coming in 2017”. This piece offered a preview of seven trends in higher education that administrators, faculty, and staff should bear in mind as they prepare for the upcoming calendar year and a change in governmental administrations. In summary, they are:

  • Enrollment changes
  • Issues of cost and access
  • Questions over value
  • Focus shifts toward career/job preparedness
  • State financial support
  • Campus climates
  • Academic freedom

It should be noted that none of these are new trends, but are continuing trends from earlier years that colleges and universities are still struggling with.

However, as an applied linguist and a second language (L2) educational specialist, there are two of these that immediately struck me. Namely those of declining state financial support and issues of cost and access. As states continue to slash higher education budgets, universities and colleges have made several adjustments to make up the difference. One way that this is done is by increasing caps on international student enrollments. This is because international students often pay a premium tuition (out-of-state tuition + extra fees).  Starting in 2012 at Purdue University, many international students were charged an additional $2,000 fee. Coincidentally, the next year, Purdue announced that they would be raising caps on international enrollments. This strategy isn’t just limited to large, public, research universities like Purdue. When I was on the job market in 2015, a small, engineering college was in the middle of making the same move. Stats from the Institute for International Education’s Open Doors project shows that relatively rapid growth in international enrollments at US universities and colleges.

The problem in this strategy to overcome declining state educational budgets is that it’s simply not sustainable. The most immediate potential threat comes from uncertainty in how the incoming government administration will handle visas. During the campaign, there were many statements made about changes to how the US handles visas and immigrations that have made higher education institutions nervous. From negative rhetoric towards Muslim groups to an America First attitude, this could put downward pressure on available student visas and post-graduation employment opportunities through cuts to the H-1B visa program—a visa for foreign workers in “specialist” positions—as well as the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program.

Now, another issue with blindly using international student enrollments to bridge budget shortfalls relates directly to matters of cost and access. At some institutions, that extra fee for international students is supposed to cover the added costs that come with international students (e.g., visa paperwork processing, additional staff support, etc.). However, at some universities and colleges, the ways in which this extra fee is used to help international students is less than transparent. Leading to questions of whether there is any benefit to the students for this additional cost. For example, there are often different acculturational and linguistic needs for international students that are not being met, or that have programs that are not properly funded. This directly impacts the educational experience for international students, some of whom may be pushed towards profit-driven intensive English programs to address lacking linguistic skills. It also affects international students access to other university experiences that may be taken for granted by the domestic students. Beyond educational consequences, there are also issues related to costs for international students that may lead to quality of life issues. On Facebook, Sarah Goldrick-Rab (see below), a professor of Educational Policy and Sociology at Temple University, responded to the original Inside Higher Ed article by pointing out that one thing that is overlooked by these conversations about cost and access also touch on matters of food and housing security. These issues may also apply to some international students.

So, another concern that should be added to this list is how we’re going to continue to support international students in higher education, and how matters of affordability—food and housing security included—can be addressed. I can only hope that these concerns don’t get lost in larger issues of addressing perceptions of an increasingly xenophobic national climate. Additionally, we might also want to continue to consider ways in which we can increase access to our institutions for international students. This may include shifting the view of these students away from one of economic resource and towards one that seeks to more fully integrate their experiences and perspectives to also create new opportunities for a larger cross-section of domestic students as well.

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