International Students Provide Colleges a Mutually Beneficial Relationship

Waleed “Willy” Alsahli, an FSU student from Saudi Arabia, wears traditional Saudi clothing and discusses regional food during a campus-community potluck intended to facilitate conversations around heritage and difference in the Frostburg community.

As state legislatures continue to slash spending on higher education and colleges and universities face continually declining enrollment, more institutions are turning their attention to attracting international students.

[Above: Waleed “Willy” Alsahli, an FSU student from Saudi Arabia, wears traditional Saudi clothing and discusses regional food during a campus-community potluck intended to facilitate conversations around heritage and difference in the Frostburg community.]

Because these students pay out-of-state tuition and are ineligible for federal financial aid and most forms of institutional support, the revenue they generate can bolster limping budgets and allow schools to enroll a larger number of domestic students.

Peggy Blumenthal, senior counselor to the president at the Institute of International Education (IIE), says recruiting international students is a sensible plan for colleges and universities for many reasons.

“Now the economy is improving — before, students would stay in school longer and go to grad school, but now more are getting jobs right away,” she says. “Also, in some places, this college-going age cohort is shrinking, so schools are seeing a shortfall in applications and in state funding. State legislatures used to provide about half of a school’s funding, but now in a lot of places, it’s down to 10 or 5 percent. To keep schools healthy, keep certain departments open, and provide scholarships for American students, schools are turning to revenue from international students.”

While colleges and universities may be seeking out international students for the fiscal boost they provide, Blumenthal says they also recognize the positive social impact foreign students can have on a campus’s diversity and on domestic students’ global education.

According to IIE, fewer than 10 percent of American students study abroad during their undergraduate career. For many of these students, having international classmates, lab partners, or roommates may be their only opportunity to connect with other cultures.

“Even if a job is based in the U.S., a company may have contracts with foreign companies, so it’s crucial for students to gain some insight into how people from different countries work,” says Blumenthal.

“And in politics, too, if you only hear the perspective of other American students, you’re only getting half the story,” she adds. “Therefore, it’s an academic and financial motivation for schools to recruit international students.”

The majority of the 974,926 international students currently studying in the U.S. — who make up less than 5 percent of the American higher education student population — come from China. India and South Korea send the next largest groups of students, and about 44 percent of all international students study in STEM fields. In addition to continually high representation from Asia and Southeast Asia, countries in Latin America are increasingly sending students to the U.S. as well.

According to IIE’s annual Open Doors Report, which reviews the state of international education, the U.S. is consistently the number one desired country of study for foreign students. Blumenthal says that barring public health or economic crises, the U.S. will continue to see a steady flow of international students into its higher education institutions.

“The perception of prospective students to the U.S. is very good,” she says. “[International students] know about the breadth of our institutions, and they know that the U.S. has very good student support. … American schools care about the extracurricular health of their students and making sure they’re integrated into the community and have the opportunity to explore their other talents.”

Blumenthal says that it’s hard to identify the typical international student because the countries they represent are so diverse, but many come from families who are able to afford the high cost of tuition and fees or are smart enough to earn scholarships from their home countries to study in the U.S. About two-thirds of foreign students pay their own way, without the help of financial aid. For students from China and India especially — where there are a limited number of top universities — an American education is seen as a worthwhile investment.

The challenge for universities, then, is to find ways to integrate these students into their campus communities.

As an example, Blumenthal says some universities provide tutorials on how to pronounce traditional Chinese names — “because you don’t want to go through a whole semester mispronouncing 5 to 10 percent of your students’ names,” she says.

At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which enrolls the largest number of Chinese students in the country, the school has broadcast its home football games in Mandarin. For a university with such a dominant football culture, Blumenthal says making games accessible to Chinese students is a way to make them feel like part of the broader campus culture.

But despite the economic and social benefits of enrolling international students, some argue that universities’ recruiting efforts and budgets would be better spent attracting low-income, first-generation, and underrepresented U.S. minority students.

At Frostburg State University (FSU) in western Maryland, recruiting and supporting underrepresented minority and international students are equally important to the university’s strategic plan to “prepare a changing student population for an era of complexity and globalization.”

An FSU student from India hits the ball during a cricket match hosted by the Indian and South Asian Student Association.
An FSU student from India hits the ball during a cricket match hosted by the Indian and South Asian Student Association.

And FSU has seen success; international student enrollment grew by 250 percent between 2008 and 2015. Denise Murphy, the director of budget at FSU, says bringing in foreign students has positively affected the university’s budget amid state funding cuts, but she says international students have never taken seats from domestic or in-state students — a charge leveled at some universities.

Victoria Gearhart, associate director of the Center for International Education (CIE) at the university, echoes this sentiment.

“It is such a privilege for us to have international students and their diversity on our campus,” she says. “They are not replacing other students, but are a benefit to our campus.”

In 2014, FSU had seven students from India. The following semester, there were 11. By the next year, Indian student representation was up to 68. After talking to current Indian students, Gearhart discovered that many of them had encouraged their family and friends back home to come to Frostburg to study. And she believes that integrating international students into the campus and wider community has been mutually beneficial.

“There are a number of ways international students contribute to the diversity of our campus,” says Gearhart. “They help us understand their cultures better and allow us to compare the similarities and differences between them; their presence is a great encouragement for our domestic students to study abroad; our domestic students become more aware of how globalized our country is, and [this experience] prepares them to live in a global society after graduation.”

International students are also encouraged to start their own cultural associations; the Indian and South Asian Student Association (ISASA) was formed following the recent influx of students from this region.

The ISASA has held cricket matches and yoga demonstrations on campus, and last November, it hosted a celebration of Diwali, the Indian festival of lights. Nearly as many American students as Indian and South Asian students attended.

Some of FSU’s Indian students dance during the Diwali celebration held last November.
Some of FSU’s Indian students dance during the Diwali celebration held last November.

Gearhart points out that it’s a lot of work to come to the U.S. to study. Beyond the language barrier, she says the process of obtaining a student visa, finding a place to live, and organizing transportation to Frostburg can be challenging. The CIE tries to help as much as possible, though, providing advice on the visa application process and country-specific tutorial videos to help prepare students for their visa interview at the U.S. embassy.

Frostburg, Md., sits in the Appalachian Mountains in the western part of the state, and has roughly 8,000 residents. Two hours away from Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., the university’s location is part of the appeal for some international students, Gearhart says.

“When I talk to international students, they say ‘I wanted to come to FSU because not many people speak my language,’” she says. “Many international students come [to the U.S.] to learn English, so they choose to study where they can get a lot of practice.

“We do have to warn them about our winters — we are up in the mountains, and ‘frost’ is in our name. We get a lot of wind and snow. … During the end of the fall, we take them shopping for hats and gloves because most of them really are not prepared for our harsh winters.”

For many of FSU’s international students, this is their first experience with snow. Gearhart says it’s a treat for them for the first three or four months, but beyond that, many grow weary of the weather — a feeling most anyone can relate to, regardless of where they come from.●

Rebecca Prinster is a senior staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.