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International Mobility of Students: Beyond the Numbers

The 2010 edition of the iconic Institute of International Education (IIE) publication “Open Doors” has been exhaustively reviewed by many analysts. As expected, higher-education institutions use its results to celebrate successes, especially if there is a positive highlight that may make the news in the local paper. Most of the time facts such as that international enrollment in U.S. higher education are the largest ever or that the number of American students abroad has managed to remain steady are celebrated.

This year for example the number of students studying abroad has reduced by an almost insignificant number — merely 2,089 students.  To put that figure in perspective, the total number of U.S. students who studied abroad in 2009 was a whopping 262,416. Not bad considering today’s difficult economic environment, wouldn’t you agree? Indeed this is an important reason for celebration, but not a corollary good excuse for complacency.

Don’t get me wrong. The facts above are good news, but the story is incomplete, especially if the numbers are reviewed in context. Can we characterize the U.S. higher-education system as internationalized? I doubt it. Much remains to be done before the real celebration begins.

First of all, we must recognize that internationalization is much more than simply the mobility of students. It involves an entire institutional strategy which includes a greater and deeper reconsideration of curriculum as the key tool for adding a global dimension to the preparation of students. Yes, student mobility is part of it, but so is faculty mobility, making a serious efforts to introduce and require second language competencies, etc.

Having said that, in the case of student mobility, the fact that more international students are in the U.S. and more U.S. students now study abroad is clearly a reason to celebrate. There are, however, four additional facts in evidence: there are still too few students benefiting from international preparedness; the proportion of international students (those visiting the U.S. and those going abroad) relative to the total U.S. higher-education enrollment really has not changed substantially in years; the experience of those studying abroad tends to be shallow; and the study-abroad experience continues to mainly be of benefit for better-off students.

Certainly, the 260,327 U.S. students abroad in 2008-09 could twice fill the Maracaná stadium in Rio de Janeiro — the largest soccer stadium in the world, or could fill 3.5 DC-747s per day over the course of an entire year, but let’s not miss the fact that they represent only a tiny 1.3  percent of the total enrollment in U.S. higher education. Yes, surprisingly nearly 99 of each 100 U.S. higher-education students don’t go abroad as part of their studies. IIE emphasizes that U.S. participation in study abroad has more than doubled over the past decade, but the proportion has not changed much, if we consider that the slightly more than 150,000 students abroad in 2000-01 then represented almost 1 percent of the total U.S. enrollment in higher education. It would be a pointless exercise to extrapolate from those numbers but considering this pattern obviates that it would take several decades to substantially increase the proportion of U.S. students abroad if too little is done to encourage a significant change. Public opinion favors increasing the internationalization of higher education in the U.S. as evidenced by the results of a recent poll taken by Nafsa: Association of International Educators.

For the few privileged with the opportunity to study abroad, the tendency is to offer programs that are gradually being narrowed to shorter and shorter international experiences. Some may argue that this is better than nothing. I agree, but more could be done not only to increase the number of participating students and moreover, to improve the quality of their international experiences. More than half of the students who go abroad only participate in a short-term program and close to four out of every 10 prefer traditional destinations locations where, in most cases, English continues to be the language of instruction. A kind of “bubble effect” frequently prevails consisting of groups of U.S. students traveling abroad for a short period of time with their “imported” teacher, remaining together, continuing to speak mainly English even while abroad, and having just a superficial glimpse at the foreign culture and people. This is a reality about which most of us in international education don’t talk much.

Another important challenge in student mobility is that it benefits mostly only better-off students. For instance, most participants in study-abroad programs are students enrolled at four-year colleges. This is a point of concern if we consider that almost half of those enrolled in the nation’s higher-education systems are attending a community college.  It is also disheartening that low-income and minority students remain highly underrepresented among those who study abroad.

Attracting international students and visiting scholars to our campuses undoubtedly is increasingly seen as a positive outcome. It helps to internationalize our institutions by putting our students and faculty members in contact with foreign individuals. Interesting and effective efforts are made by some institutions to take advantage of this unique opportunity. But still too much remains to be done in order to fully integrate foreign students and scholars into the day-to-day life of our institutions. It is also difficult to avoid the temptation to view international students primarily as providers of additional revenues and as a source of prestige and reputation.

Those are additional reasons why, on the one hand, greater degrees of student and faculty mobility should be embraced, but on the other, more effort at the domestic level should be undertaken to internationalize the curriculum and to carefully monitor our progress regarding the internationalization of our higher education institutions.

Higher education is changing all over the world. The nature of tomorrow’s job market and the current and future challenges of a globalized society require more aggressive, effective, and broader efforts in higher education and its internationalization.  Should we continue to wait?

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