In Economic Downturn, Colleges Eye International Education: Cut Back or Forge Ahead?

U. of South Florida

Foreign students arrive for orientation at a U. of South Florida center run in conjunction with Into University Partnerships, a private company. The center offers a college-preparatory program that combines English instruction and other course work.
August 29, 2010

Over the past decade, talk of internationalization has peppered the speeches of presidents and provosts, graced strategic plans, and been incorporated into campus mission statements.

But the economic downturn has forced some colleges to scale back once-ambitious plans or devise more cost-conscious ways to achieve their goals of globalizing teaching, learning, and research.

A handful of campuses, like Michigan State and North Carolina State Universities, are retreating from prominent overseas outposts. More commonly, colleges are making significant but lower-profile cutbacks, paring staffs or halting foreign travel.

While few institutions are gutting global-education budgets or shuttering offices, experts in the field worry that the financial crisis is hitting at a critical juncture, just as internationalization efforts appear to be gaining momentum. And in an area that requires long-term commitment and focus, spending reductions today could hobble those efforts far into the future, they warn.

Colleges that come to a standstill on international work may find it increasingly difficult to catch up, as the rivalry for top students worldwide heats up and as institutions become choosier about entering into overseas academic and research partnerships. The risk, some say, is that the fiscal crisis could deepen the divide between haves and have-nots in international education.

"Universities and colleges all say they are committed to international education," says Thomas Millington, director of study abroad and global learning at Western Kentucky University. "This is a litmus test."

In From the Periphery

The Association of International Education Administrators, the membership group for senior international officers, is approaching its 30th birthday, but on most American campuses, having a top administrator to oversee the breadth of a college's global work is a more recent phenomenon. Some observers fear that these positions may be at particular risk in budget-cutting times, either with people being let go or colleges putting off the creation of such posts.

Previously, such activities were often scattered throughout the college and were "on the periphery," says William B. Lacy, president of the international-educators group. Study abroad was often handled by an adviser or two within student affairs, international-student recruitment an afterthought in the admissions office, overseas research up to individual faculty members.

Mr. Lacy, who is the vice provost for university outreach and international programs at the University of California at Davis, argues that central offices like his are important if colleges want to push ahead with a strategic global vision.

"If international is at the top of everyone's B list, it won't get done," he says.

Mr. Lacy says he is concerned that colleges will abandon such offices, especially if they are not well rooted. "These are the last offices created on many campuses, and they have the potential to be the first offices lost," he says.

Boise State University, for one, dismissed its director of international programs this year and reassigned the office's functions to a variety of divisions across campus. (See related article.)

Last year Emmanuel College, in Boston, laid off Mr. Millington, its international director, turning for international programming to a local consortium, the Colleges of the Fenway Global Educational Opportunity Center. The center, housed on the Emmanuel campus, provides study-abroad advising and support, as well as training for faculty members developing overseas programs.

Mr. Lacy says he is equally worried that finances may prevent other institutions from creating stand-alone international offices. He points to his own university as a cautionary tale—Davis, he says, was in the process of naming its first senior international officer in the early 1990s when an economic downturn pinched its budget. The position was suspended, and it was nearly a decade before Mr. Lacy was appointed the university's top international administrator, Davis's first.

Not a Frill

But even as many campuses are tightening their belts, a handful are making high-profile investments in international activities, arguing that it is something they need to do to distinguish their institutions and fully prepare their students for an ever-more-global workplace.

"It's as essential as English and mathematics," says Esther L. Barazzone, president of Chatham University, which just started a new undergraduate global-certificate program. "It's not a frill to be dispensed with because there's a budget crunch."

Sabine C. Klahr, who had led Boise State's international office, this spring became assistant vice president for international affairs at Chatham, a new high-level position at the Pittsburgh university.

The University of Richmond just hired an associate dean of international education, in part to help advance its efforts to recruit more degree-seeking international students. Uliana F. Gabara, the dean, started Richmond's international office 23 years ago; now she oversees a staff of 10.

This fall the university will cut the ribbon on a $20-million, 50,000-square-foot international-education center. While a donor pledged seed funds for the building—which includes a state-of-the-art language studio, high-tech classrooms linking Richmond with its 60 overseas partners, and an "international commons" for lectures, films, and performances—the university dedicated $11-million to its construction.

"By any measure," Ms. Gabara says, "we're moving forward." 

 For Richmond, being international is integral to its image. In 2007, Newsweek named the university "Hottest for International Studies", and it ranks among the top baccalaureate colleges for the number of students it sends abroad each year. Ms. Gabara says many students pick Richmond, which offers a generous travel stipend, specifically because they want to study overseas.

John K. Hudzik, a past president of Nafsa: Association of International Educators, says that while measuring colleges' commitment to internationalization can be "squishy," institutions like Richmond, for which study abroad is an important selling point, are unlikely to diminish such activities.

Likewise, says Mr. Hudzik, a budget expert and former vice president for global engagement and strategic projects at Michigan State University, colleges that realize revenue from international work are more likely to make upfront investments in internationalization.

Forging strong partnerships with overseas universities can help American colleges secure big-dollar research grants. And, after years of ignoring international alumni, a growing number of institutions are moving to tap them as donors.

Talking about international work as a moneymaker had been largely off-limits, says William I. Brustein, vice provost for global strategies and international affairs at Ohio State University, but now top administrators want to know "what's the return on investment."

"Today," he says, "they want to see a business plan. They want to know how this effort addresses university priorities."

Perhaps the most significant source of revenue is international students themselves, particularly at the undergraduate level or in English-language programs, where the majority pay their own way. The University of South Florida, for one, has committed to spending up to $2.5-million in funds from the university foundation to jump-start a joint effort with a private company, Into University Partnerships, to recruit and educate foreign students in a college-preparatory program that combines intensive English instruction and academic course work.

The university expects to recoup its investment within five years, says Ralph C. Wilcox, executive vice president and provost, but a larger share of foreign students will also help South Florida meet one of its five "strategic imperatives," of increasing global literacy and understanding. Now less than 4 percent of the university's 47,000 students come from outside the United States.

A Sobering Message

If anyone should be downcast about the current state of affairs, it's Mitch Leventhal, vice chancellor for global affairs at the State University of New York. After all, his division, like others in the New York system, has taken a more-than-20-percent budget cut.

But Mr. Leventhal declares himself "strangely optimistic" that more institutions will, like South Florida, embrace more-aggressive global recruitment strategies that at once bolster their bottom lines and help them become more international places. Increasing the number of foreign students, he argues, will give colleges the money to support internationalization efforts.

"The crisis is, in a way, an opportunity, because it really sobers people up," says Mr. Leventhal, who also leads the American International Recruitment Council, a nonprofit group that sets standards for and certifies overseas recruiters. "It's not like there are a lot of $2-million donors out there for study abroad."

A number of those colleges are turning to Mark Shay, who heads up North American operations for IDP Education, a student-recruitment firm that made its name helping to globalize Australia's universities.

Mr. Shay says that his company's services are meant to supplement colleges' own recruiting efforts, rather than act as a shortcut to enrolling international students. But many of the colleges that contact him aren't willing—or able to afford—to make the effort to raise their profiles overseas.

While IDP can act as a matchmaker, Mr. Shay says, colleges need to invest time and money traveling overseas to meet students and to better understand the market. And they need to understand that overseas outreach now might not add to enrollments for several semesters.

"Expectations are increasing, but budgets aren't," Mr. Shay says, adding that he is concerned that the fiscal climate could exacerbate the divide between those colleges able to recruit effectively overseas and those that cannot.

"A race is on," he says, "and some people are stepping up."

Doing More With Less

Mr. Hudzik, of Michigan State, raises the specter that budgetary constraints could lead to a worsening cycle: Colleges without the resources to travel, do research, or recruit abroad could see their profiles drop overseas, making them less attractive partners for international efforts.

This summer Mr. Hudzik's own institution canceled all undergraduate programs at its branch campus in Dubai. Meanwhile, North Carolina State recently announced an "indefinite hold" on plans to offer education programs at a new global-university campus in South Korea.

"I think it's too simplistic to say that there will be a two-tiered system," he says. But as global rankings drive more universities to become brand-conscious, Mr. Hudzik worries that "only a limited number of institutions will have the resources to attract prestige partners who want to dance with them."

Other educators counter that money isn't the only important ingredient when it comes to internationalization.

"Money is important to walking the walk, but money isn't everything," says Allan E. Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education, a nonprofit organization involved in international exchanges. "It's important that people are still talking the talk."

Some institutions say they are finding ways to do more with less.

Rather than create expensive new area-studies programs, Chatham built its new global certificates on existing interdisciplinary strengths and on strategic overseas relationships.

Consisting of five courses apiece, including language study and an international internship or study-abroad experience, the certificates are affordable for students as well because they can be easily folded into a course of study.

And despite the economic downturn, membership in the Forum on Education Abroad, an association of American and overseas colleges and independent education-abroad providers, increased 20 percent in the last year.

At Emmanuel, the Boston college that eliminated its international-programs office, study-abroad participation actually went up after the college turned to the local consortium. This summer the college added a full-time staff member to coordinate study abroad and international-student programming, a spokeswoman says.

College leaders recognize, Mr. Goodman argues, that they can't afford not to educate students for a global world. Alluding to Thomas L. Friedman's best-selling book about globalization, he says, "Everybody knows that the world is flat."