The University of Iowa

Adapt to and benefit from foreign enrollment

February 17th, 2012

Editorial by Matt Heinze from The Daily Iowan

With Chinese enrollment in Iowa universities skyrocketing and a major Chinese diplomatic visit underway this week in Iowa, Chinese-Iowa relations have recently manifested themselves in a view yet unprecedented. It’s probably enough for some pundits to worry they’re on the set of a Red Dawn remake.

OK, so admittedly, that may be pushing the “xenophobia” button a bit too much.

Still, no one can deny the current surge in foreign student-enrollment at Iowa’s institutions of higher learning, especially from economically robust nations such as China and India. Since 2006, Iowa State University has seen an increase in undergraduate enrollment of nearly twentyfold by Chinese foreign nationals. University of Iowa officials have boasted the same, while Grinnell College, one of the top liberal-arts institutions in the country, last year said one in ten of its prospective students resided in China.

Those numbers have left many analysts anxious about what this trend means for America’s economic and entrepreneurial future. These anxieties have been presented in numerous perspectives as historians, economists, and educators alike struggle to understand exactly what a mobile, highly skilled workforce might mean for American economic investment.

However quixotic the fairy tales of those refusing to acknowledge economic realities are, though, the fact remains that we stand in a time of transition for international education and that America must quickly come up with a plan.

As if obvious, the growth of international students at institutions in Iowa is hardly an isolated occurrence. For years, the trend of ever-increasing foreign student enrollments has been growing substantially as institutions look to recruit highly-qualified prospects and increase overall diversity.

In fact, Iowa lags behind many of her sister institutions of the Big Ten. In the Big Ten, eight institutions — Illinois, Purdue, Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Indiana, Penn State, and Minnesota — made the cut for the top-20 international host schools by enrollment for 2011, a list which the University of Iowa did not even break into.

That increase has led to considerable economic growth, at least in terms of actual spending. In Iowa, for example, experts at the International Institute of Education assert foreign student expenditures exceed $280 million annually. Yet these numbers pale in comparison with the overall national expenditures of international students, which every year account for many billions of dollars.

But unlike most services and products (as many are quick to point out), education is unique in that it shares many properties with that of a long-term investment. That is to say, students do not simply help sustain the economy; they help to spur and cultivate further economic growth. This thinking has led some to worry about a potential American “reverse brain-drain,” as domestically educated international students take their intellectual investment and skills back home or elsewhere on the globe. Rational logic would suggest this trend isn’t the new normal, but as American economic prowess is continually challenged by job markets in China, India, and other rapidly developing states, the possibility remains ominous and requires creative solutions.

Yet this possibility does not prove entirely detrimental. Some suggest the trend will lead to increased cultural understanding and aid in bridging political divergences. That’s in addition to the logical realization that some foreign students will inevitably stay in the United States for the majority of their careers, thus contributing to domestic economic growth.

Whatever the case may be, America’s role as the primary provider of advanced learning in the world is already well underway. As such, it’s important we come to recognize the inherent challenges this role entails and prepare accordingly as we move forward. The internationalization of our nation’s higher-education system is a train which (seemingly) cannot be stopped and we simply cannot afford to ignore its continued rise.

After all, we wouldn’t want to be left in the dust all over again, would we?