Another COVID-19 victim: International education

Whether COVID-19 is the “last nail” in the coffin of globalization, as Carmen Reinhart, the incoming chief economist of the World Bank, recently remarked, remains to be seen.  One thing is more certain: The United States’ prominence in international education is likely to be COVID-19’s latest fatality. That will be yet another heartbreaking loss we will all share if we don’t act quickly.

For at least 50 years, the U.S. has been the leader in international education, welcoming first a trickle, then a stream, then a broad river of undergraduate and graduate students from all over the world. That river has dried up now. Visa offices in U.S. embassies abroad are closed, and entrance into the U.S. is barred for those entering from places as far-flung as Brazil and Belgium. Moreover, the parents and foreign governments who fund those foreign students may be reluctant to send them into the coronavirus-infested, “dangerous” United States.  

Economists now doubt that the U.S. will have the good fortune to have a rapid economic recovery. Increasingly, they are expecting a drawn-out recovery, much like the recovery from COVID-19 itself.  So too it will be with international education.  Meanwhile, students in Colombia, in India and in Ghana, to name only a few places, will look around and weigh their options. They will note that while they were working hard toward the goal of studying in the U.S., higher-level educational systems in their own country and neighboring countries were not standing still. New universities and new programs have sprung up like wildflowers and present viable alternatives for those aspiring students. And some of those “wildflowers” may turn out to be far more attractive than the more mature gardens of U.S. higher education even when COVID-19 is no longer a threat. 

Many programs outside the U.S. may offer lower costs, greater proximity and innovation borne of necessity. This is coupled with the perception that universities in the Global South may have more understanding of problems in their own backyard.  These factors could spell the end of “American exceptionalism” in higher education, just as the Trump era has led to the same end in foreign affairs.

Why does it matter? First, most of those students pay full tuition and have helped to defray rising costs at many U.S. colleges and universities. NAFSA: Association of International Educators has estimated a $3 billion loss in revenues for U.S. colleges and universities just from a lower enrollment of foreign students in fall 2020. 

Harder to estimate, but arguably more important, is the loss of one of our country’s major tools of soft diplomacy: international students. Whatever the political rhetoric coming from Washington, D.C., foreign students have been able to experience a different vision of the United States and its people than the one shown on their televisions back home. Over and over again, international students have told me about the unexpected generosity and kindness, freedom of spirit, openness and curiosity they have found in the “real” America.  They marvel at the “melting pot” of diversity they witness in their classes and on the streets. 

And that is what international students will remember when they return home. Many describe it as a transformational experience. The stereotype of the “pushy” or “ugly” American vanishes and is replaced by the smiling landlady, the kind professor, and the funny classmates. In short, they find out what really makes Americans love their country. The U.S. gains a friend for life: not a friend right or wrong, but nonetheless a friend.  

This understanding, as well as the foreign students’ contribution to multiculturalism and diversity on U.S. college campuses, will be worth a fortune as the U.S. struggles to remake itself and regain a prominent place in the post-COVID world, not only in public health and finance but in the rest of the world’s hearts and minds.  

Opening up visa offices and welcoming international students again may be one of the best things the U.S. can do right now to begin to recover not only our physical and financial health but also our soul.

Phyllis Pomerantz, Ph.D., is director of graduate studies for the Master of International Development Policy program at the Duke Center for International Development, Sanford School of Public Policy, Duke University.


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