Revisioning the International Student Experience and Family Support

According to the Institute of International Education (IIE), in the 2018–19 academic year, over 1 million international students enrolled in institutions of higher education in the United States.  This number is double the 547,867 students who were enrolled 20 years prior in 2000–01.  It is estimated that international students add over $40 billion to the US economy each year.  Since World War II, the United States has been a top destination for international student enrollment.

Despite international students accounting for 5.5% of total student enrollment in 2018-2019 (IIE data), international student enrollment stagnated beginning in 2014–15 with enrollment slowly, but steadily declining since 2016-2017.  With uncertainty about the continued impacts on enrollment of COVID-19 and the political environment and overall safety of studying in the United States, future enrollment forecasts are concerning.  For too long, colleges and universities have taken international student enrollment for granted, relying on international student enrollment as a key funding source.  This has had the adverse effect of creating a “unsustainable business models based on transactional relationships with international students”.     

Though overshadowed more recently by COVID-19 and political polarization and unrest in the United States, this transactional model has contributed to the decrease in international student enrollment.  A recent report from the American Council on Education (ACE) entitled Toward Greater Inclusion and Success:  A New Compact for International Students calls to question the structures of international student education in the United States and challenges the need to change these frameworks.

The report is a great read for anyone working in higher education who provides support to international students and their families.  ACE suggests a new compact for international student success, with a focus on all three phases of the international student lifecycle; before arrival, during studies and after graduation.  This new compact must be built on the foundation of equity and inclusion, focusing on the individualism of each student.  The compact focuses on key tenets to promote this success including:

  • Sustainability – “protecting the planet and addressing global challenges”
  • Responsiveness – “culturally responsive, address discrimination and racism, and acknowledge the impact of national politics and policy”
  • Networked – “recognize the increasing role of networks…mobilizing new technologies, providing portable credentials, and preparing students for the future of work”
  • Humanism – “multidimensional identities and experiences…articulates the multifaceted value and contributions of international students”
  • Equity – “must be equity-minded”

The New Compact for International Students also focuses on the important role that family plays with holistic international student success.  As the report so eloquently points, out, “Institutions do not merely build relationships with individual international students; they build relationships with those individuals’ families, cultures, and countries (pg.19)”.  Page 31 of the report outlines the critical role that family plays before, during and after a student’s time studying in the United States.

As families, in many cases extended families, have made tremendous sacrifices for students to study in the United States, developing a foundation to support needs is critical.  Our institutions need the knowledge we bring to the table regarding family engagement in all aspects of student success.  The families of international students may be unable to visit them in the United States due to challenges with visa restrictions and immigration policies.  As we have adjusted our engagement strategies during COVID-19, we have learned the value of virtual engagement with families and can provide guidance on how best to outreach to our international families.  As family engagement experts, we should be at the table for these important conversations. 

I encourage everyone to read over the report as it provides great insights on the frameworks that higher education needs to examine, abolish, and rebuild to best support international student success.  We must make meaningful change to the structures of higher education by adding equity and inclusion to the international student experience thus creating a mutually beneficial relationship. 

Ryan Lovell is the Associate Dean of Students and Senior Director, Parent and Family Relations at The Ohio State University. He is also currently the AHEPPP: Family Engagement in Higher Education Board of Directors Treasurer. 
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