Hooked on tuition edition

Why U.S. higher ed’s public funding problems are tied to international students

Public Colleges, International Support

More than a decade on, public colleges are still feeling the effects of the Great Recession. On average, per-student education appropriations in 2018 remain $1,000 below their pre-recession levels, according to the just-released State Higher Education Finance report.

I know you’re thinking, Karin, I came here for international education news. But here’s the thing: American higher education’s public funding dilemma is intertwined with international education, specifically, with international students.

We talk about taxpayers’ shaky support for higher education and about weakening international enrollments as if they’re separate issues. They’re not.

Public colleges got through the recession by raising tuition to make up for declining state dollars. In nearly half the states, they increased net tuition revenue per student by 25 percent or more.

Who were the students footing the bill? Many of them were from overseas.

A study from the University of Michigan found that a 10 percent decrease in state appropriations was tied to a 12 percent increase in foreign enrollments at public research universities. At flagships and research-intensive institutions that are members of the Association of American Universities, the impact is even greater – enrollments increased 17 percent.

I talked with Gaurav Khanna, an assistant professor of economics at the University of California at San Diego and one of the paper’s authors. He acknowledged that there were “push” factors fueling interest in studying abroad in places like India and China. Still, he said:

“State funding was a big driver in international student growth.”

About two-thirds of the enrollment increase during the international student boom was at public colleges.

That boom, of course, is over – new international enrollments have dropped for the past two years.

With another economic downturn overdue, should the fact that colleges may not be able to rely on international tuition to plug budget holes the next time around be a cause for alarm?

While American colleges have become more reliant on foreign students, their level of dependence is less than at institutions like the University of Toronto, where international tuition is now a greater source of revenue than either domestic tuition or provincial support.

Khanna and his co-authors found that an uptick in international students accounted for 22 percent of the increase in tuition revenues. At some institutions, however, international enrollments made up a far greater share – at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where administrators recently took out an insurance policy against a drop in Chinese students, foreign students were nearly half the tuition growth.

But Khanna says the public colleges at greatest risk during the next slump may be those that didn’t benefit from the international student surge. There’s little evidence to suggest that bachelor’s and master’s degree institutions experience net increases in revenue from enrolling more students from abroad.

International tuition could have helped universities like Illinois build a cushion, Khanna says:

“They might have figured out a way to weather the storm with the help of Chinese students, but the next tier of institutions, they’re not so well-positioned. They have no extra revenues from Chinese students to get them through.”

Are American colleges becoming hooked on international-student tuition? What are the consequences? Let’s keep up the conversation. Find me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Around the Globe

Nine pro-democracy activists, including several academics and former student leaders, were convicted for their leadership of the 2014 “umbrella movement” rallies in Hong Kong.

The director of the National Institutes of Health has apologized to two Iranian graduate students who were blocked from campus. Francis Collins said he was “troubled” by the scientists’ treatment and that the NIH would refine its screening policy, which requires all visitors to disclose their citizenship, so it was not “onerous or painful.”

The Institute of International Education has recognized 31 colleges with the IIE Seal of Excellence for meeting Generation Study Abroad commitments and increasing the number of students who go overseas.

The U.S. has denied entry to a co-founder of the BDS Movement, which advocates using boycott, disinvestment, and sanctions to pressure Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians.

Another Confucius Institute bites the dust: Indiana University is the latest institution to announce it will close its Chinese-government-supported language and cultural center.

More than 80 academics from around the world have signed a letter protesting a draft law in Singapore to fight online disinformation. The scholars say that the law – which could force websites to run correction notices alongside content the government deems false and penalize those found guilty of spreading untruths – could chill academic speech.

The Brexit Effect

Will they stay or will they go? That’s the question for Britain, which last week secured another extension on Brexit, the country’s scheduled withdrawal from the European Union. And it’s an issue for universities there – a flash survey of 3,300 prospective international students by QS, a global higher education company, found that one in three would be more likely to study in Britain if it remained in the EU.

The real question: If Brexit influences international students' interest in studying in the UK, what assumptions are now baked into their decisionmaking in the nearly three years since British citizens voted to leave the EU? One reading of the data suggests they’re betting Brexit won’t happen – applications to UK universities are up.

I’d love to hear from readers in the UK about how you are dealing with Brexit uncertainties. Send an email to latitudesnews@gmail.com, or reach out on Twitter. I’m @karinfischer.

Study Abroad Reaction

It’s become a rite of spring like the cherry blossoms in the nation’s capital – a bipartisan group of senators introduced the Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Program Act. The bill would create a competitive grant program for colleges to expand study abroad, with the goal of increasing the number of students who go overseas annually to a million within a decade. Currently, about a third of that number do.

I asked on social media whether the U.S. needs a national strategy to promote study abroad, and if so, why? I got many great responses – too many to share them all, sadly:

And some people thought that while the goal was laudable, the Simon Act, which has been introduced in some form for more than a dozen years, needed to be replaced with a fresher alternative:

Got a fellow international-ed geek in your life? Forward latitude(s) to them!

And finally…

I’m just back from a weekend in Maine spent hanging out with Iron Man and Spiderman. (In this scenario, I’m Black Widow, which, if we’ve met, you’ll know is some pretty creative casting.) If only I’d seen this Cornell Daily Sun article before I flew home, I could’ve scored some major auntie points: Two linguistics grad students at the university won a job coveted by comic-book geeks the world over: creating a new alien language for the latest Marvel movie. In grammar and syntax, Torfan resembles Japanese but draws on Greek and Latin and has “distinct ejective sounds.”

Who knows – maybe an interest in Torfan will lead to a renaissance in foreign-language study!

’Til next week – Karin

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