For each of the past five years, American colleges and universities have enrolled more than one million international students. Unfortunately, the continuing success of this important cultural and academic exchange is at risk. In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic resulted in a sharp decline in new enrollments and if we are not proactive, there will be a comparable decline this fall.
Enthusiastic young people come to America from virtually every country on the globe and do so because of the quality and diversity of our higher education institutions. In the process they contribute tens of billions annually to our communities through tuition payments and local consumption of goods and services. And they enable American students to have shared educational experiences with people from the world over, men and women with whom they will build friendships and eventually work alongside in every sector of the global economy.
Although the pandemic continues to challenge all aspects of international exchange, the good news is that our nation’s expected surplus of effective COVID-19 vaccines by this summer offers a very promising opportunity for visiting students. In addition to having the capability to vaccinate every freshman and returning college student for the fall semester, we should also commit to vaccinating every international student heading to our campuses. It’s an offer that no other country can presently make and will begin to restore America’s position as the most sought- after nation for study abroad, as well as the destination of choice for visiting teachers and scholars.
This powerful vaccine diplomacy, which can become a national policy without taking away a single shot from any American, could work in one of several ways.
Working through our embassies around the world, we could ship an appropriate, limited supply of vaccines to each nation after documenting the number of students and scholars from that nation admitted to American universities for the fall. The logistics of the vaccination program would, of course, need to be determined in-nation, making this the “lowest burden” option for U.S. authorities.
Alternatively, vaccines could be administered at U.S. airports upon arrival. This might need to be coupled with a pre-flight COVID test and/or a short period of quarantine. Most U.S. airports are already equipped to screen individuals disembarking from international flights, although individuals trained to administer the vaccine would be needed.
Thirdly, American universities could be authorized to provide the vaccine upon the student’s or scholar’s arrival to campus. Again, this might require an additional layer of testing and/or quarantine.
This program would offer another compelling benefit for many international students. The chance to get vaccinated here in America would come as much as a year sooner than would be possible if they remained at home. And all indications are that we would still have excess supply to send to many of the hardest hit countries, or warehouse excess stock.
There is historic precedent of developing effective responses to the challenges of pandemics in academia. The war to defeat smallpox in America began in 1721 on the Harvard College campus when Zabdiel Boylston, a physician, inoculated a Harvard professor, tutor and thirteen students, in addition to others.
Three centuries later, our institutions of higher learning again have the opportunity to lead. Every U.S. college and university could be enlisted in not only making its own campus safe but making a statement that will reverberate around the world: America continues to value international students and scholars, and to offer them far more than a diploma when they chose to come to our shores.
The economic, cultural and geopolitical benefits to maintaining our dominance in international academic exchange are well worth the effort to give vaccine diplomacy the old college try.