Colleges' Efforts to Internationalize Slip in Some Areas

June 27, 2012

American colleges say they are more supportive than ever of international education, but in many cases their efforts to internationalize may fall short, a new report from the American Council on Education suggests.

Half of all colleges surveyed said they include international or global education in their institutional mission statements, while a like number reported internationalization among their top five strategic priorities. A majority said internationalization efforts on their campuses had accelerated in recent years.

But the report, the result of an extensive survey of more than 1,000 colleges and universities in 2011, found that support for certain globally focused activities has declined since the last time the council conducted such a study, in 2006. A smaller share of institutions now require students to take a foreign language or enroll in courses that focus on perspectives, issues, or events outside the United States. Funds for faculty members to travel to meetings or conferences overseas or to conduct research abroad have dropped.

And the degree of international engagement differs sharply by institutional type, the report shows. While 95 percent of respondents from doctoral institutions characterized their level of campus internationalization as "high" or "moderate," just 37 percent of those from associate's institutions did so.

"We're going to have to think of new models, new ways to deliver learning outcomes to all students, at all types of institutions," said Patti McGill Peterson, ACE presidential adviser for global initiatives.

'Pleasant Surprises'

This is the third time the higher-education group, which has vowed to be an advocate for international education, has published the study, "Mapping Internationalization on U.S. Campuses." It notably not only queries colleges about where internationalization fits in their institutional vision but asks them to detail their international efforts in five specific areas: administrative structures and staffing, curriculum and co-curricular activities, faculty policies and practices, student mobility, and collaborations and partnerships.

It's fair to say that the findings are all over the map.

There are results that Ms. Peterson and Lindsay Addington, a senior program specialist at the council's Center for Internationalization and Global Engagement, characterized as "pleasant surprises" and "solid gains." For one, the survey shows a robust increase in the share of colleges that specifically include international or global education in their mission statements, from less than 40 percent of respondents in 2006 to more than 50 percent today.

The percentage of institutions with campuswide international plans edged up slightly, from 23 percent to 26 percent, while 44 percent of colleges have a committee working on institutionwide global efforts. More than half have developed internationally focused measures of student-learning outcomes.

What's more, a growing number of colleges take international background, experience, and interests into account when hiring faculty, the survey shows. Some 68 percent of respondents indicated that they give such preferences, up significantly from 32 percent five years earlier.

But alarmingly, there are other areas of internationalization where colleges have stagnated or fallen behind.

If institutions are considering international experience in hiring, it still counts little in tenure or promotion. Just 8 percent of colleges include international work in guidelines for faculty promotion or tenure, the same share as in 2006.

At the same time, institutional financial support for professors' international work and travel has declined. Just under half of the institutions surveyed say they support international conference travel, down from 56 percent in the earlier study, while 31 percent provide money for research abroad, compared with 36 percent in 2006.

When it comes to undergraduate education, over all the percentage of colleges working to internationalize the curriculum rose, from 41 percent in the 2006 survey to 55 percent. Drill down, though, and it's more of a mixed bag. The share of colleges that insist students take a course that focuses on global trends and issues, such as global health or environment, went up, but the percentage that make courses that emphasize international perspectives part of their general-education requirements declined.

And the share of institutions that require students to take a foreign language to graduate continues, in Ms. Peterson's words, to "spiral down." Just 37 percent of colleges now have undergraduate language requirements, down from 45 percent in 2006 and 53 percent in 2001, the first time the study was conducted. Among institutions with a foreign-language requisite, the most commonly reported requirement is one year of language study.

Differences by Institution Type

Perhaps the most striking differences, however, exist between types of institutions. Take the issue of administrative structures. Virtually all doctoral institutions have an office that coordinates and leads internationalization efforts; such centralized offices can be important advocates for global work, educators say. By contrast, just 56 percent of associate-degree institutions and 41 percent of baccalaureate institutions have a senior-level administrator for international programs.

Or take international students—more than 60 percent of doctoral, master's, and baccalaureate institutions provide scholarships or other financial aid to international undergraduates. Only about 15 percent of community colleges offer financial support to foreign students.

The money gap also appears in study abroad. Nine out of 10 doctoral institutions have money available to students for study abroad, while just a quarter of associate-degree colleges give out scholarships for overseas study. Over all, 42 percent of institutions surveyed said none of their 2011 graduates studied abroad, while 36 percent reported that fewer than 5 percent of graduates did so.

Judith Irwin, an independent education consultant who advises community colleges on their global efforts, said that faculty and administrators at two-year institutions often struggle to make the case about the importance of international education, especially to trustees. That's shortsighted, she said.

"There's no question there are some trustees who still have the notion that the community college is built to have a local focus," said Ms. Irwin, a former director of international programs at the American Association of Community Colleges. "But they don't get the fact that even if you take the company that's in town, they're still looking to hire people with global competencies."

Ms. Peterson said the gulf between colleges that are internationally engaged and those that provide few global opportunities to their students is troublesome, particularly since community colleges educate a significant share of today's students. Those differences may have been exacerbated by tight budgets in recent years.

"If we're really serious about this, if we want to just not talk the talk but walk the walk, we don't have to spend millions," she said, "but we do have to make an investment."

But John K. Hudzik, a former vice president for global engagement at Michigan State University who has written extensively about campus internationalization, said it's significant that colleges have made the progress they have on international education, given the economic headwinds of the past five years.

Mr. Hudzik, who is also a past president of Nafsa: Association of International Educators, said he senses a real change in attitude among college leaders toward international work.

"It's pretty darn hard to find a president or a provost who doesn't say, 'We've got to be international.'" he said. "Now they say, 'OK, I buy the message, but what do I do, where do I start?'"