“Perceived barriers” may drive prospective students away from US

In a lively discussion around the latest sector positioning and policies in the US held during The PIE Live virtual summit, an expert panel explored the strengths and successes of the country’s international education sector, predicted obstacles for the months ahead and the ways educators and institutions must work together to overcome them.

“This administration has spent more than any in history on promoting US higher education abroad”

Kicking off the panel discussion, Joann Ng Hartmann senior director, IEM-ISS Services at NAFSA recalled the moment of celebration when ICE rescinded its ban on international students remaining in the country if their courses are being held online.

“It showcased one of NAFSA’s strengths in terms of being able to mobilise our community and our field to advocate for what is right and just for access for international students. It really was a show of our collective voices,” she noted, adding, “I think we’ll have to continue lots of work and advocacy for the rest of this year as well”.

Deputy assistant secretary for Academic Programs at the Department of State, Caroline Casagrande said that “tremendous work” has been done to surface how important higher education is as a sector throughout Capitol Hill and the administration.

“We have 630 American spaces around the globe – these are community centre centres of engagement – and what we want everyone who walks into an American space to understand that US higher education is not only attainable, but we have a centre in their country and in their community help make that happen,” she told delegates.

“[In fact] this administration has spent more than any in history on promoting US higher education abroad. We have done all sorts of new things within that network this year.”

Affordability of education is one of the main areas of focus for the department, Casagrande continued.

No matter who we polled, no matter what we pull, [affordability] has been a significant barrier to the growth of our [student] numbers. So we’ve tried to pivot to some of those financial decisions that we know are difficult for families and find ways to make American education more affordable.”

But panellists agreed that numerous challenges remain for the US sector, and one of the biggest, according to assistant vice provost for undergraduate admissions at American University, Andrea Felder, has been the decision to move to all classes in an online format due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The fact that we have students from about 120 countries around the world, you can imagine that all of the various timezones can pose a challenge for students,” she noted.

“But I am very hopeful and optimistic that we will be able to welcome students on to campus in the fall next year. And we will be there with open arms to welcome them to our community so that they get an understanding of what the US higher education system is like.”

Throughout the pandemic, technology has been instrumental in helping students overcome the difficulties of not being able to be on campus for their US higher education.

At Shorelight Education, CEO & co-founder, Tom Dretler explained that the development technology to allow the delivery of degree program content in a way that is tailored to an international students’ needs – “essentially bringing the magic of the classroom to the student” – has seen the vast majority of enrolments at the US universities Shorelight works with up around 10% overall.

But for associate vice provost for International Education at University of Maryland, David Di Maria, the current restrictions on international students coming to the country is less of a problem than students and their families’ perception of the US as a destination.

“I think that relates to rhetoric, it relates to unpredictable policies, it relates to the civil unrest that we’ve seen,” he explained.

“These are things in the headlines worldwide causing reasonable people to stop and pause and think twice about whether or not they would go to study in the United States at this time.”

“We are starting to see increased competition from the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand”

Following on Di Maria’s points, Felder added that the perception that the US is going to encourage students to look at other countries.

“We are starting to see increased competition from the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand. And so I do believe that, sure, policies may be in place that allow students to enrol, but perception will drive students away from us,” she warned.

One “grave” concern for the future flagged by Hartmann at NAFSA is a proposed new rule by the Department of Homeland Security which would eliminate the duration of status.

“This is a major concern for the field as puts a very clear timeframe that often does not match up to what a student’s program of study may be,” she said.

“So we’re encouraging the HE community members, universities, anyone who wants to continue really giving the ‘perception’ – as David mentioned – of a welcoming country to please comment on the impact and negative effects that this will have for future years to come if the rule passes as it is proposed.”

Additionally, any proposed cuts to the OPT program, which is a major incentive for international students from key sending countries such as India could be a major blow to the future of US student recruitment, Di Maria warned.

However, Casagrande emphasised that the State Department has been, and continues to, prioritise international students throughout the pandemic.

I think when you compare the openness of the United States borders right now – mid-pandemic – to many of our competitor nations, you will find without a doubt, we have a better system, a more open system to get our international students in,” she said.

“We have not grounded all planes. We have not shut off borders. The second the embassies were permitted to open up around the world, we had ambassadors and we had embassy staff leading the charge to say student visas are going to be prioritised.

“Our Open Doors numbers have increased every single year, and that is a testament to students continually making that choice for the United States,” she added.

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