International Exchange: Not a Zero-Sum Game

Photo: Peggy BlumenthalBy Peggy Blumenthal
Senior Counselor to the President, Institution of International Education

International students’ participation in U.S. higher education has been scrutinized in the media this past summer and fall, generating hot debate among state legislators, higher education leaders, and movers and shakers in Washington, D.C. Actions ranged from California’s decision to cap the percentage of international students at certain U.C. and CalState campuses, to a widespread social media campaign reassuring incoming students “#YouAreWelcomeHere,” to a flurry of surveys predicting dramatic declines in international student interest in the US, later contradicted by more substantive surveys showing limited and uneven declines in incoming cohorts at different types of institutions across the United States.

An important scholarly study, recently published in the Journal of Public Economics and recapped in Inside Higher Ed on Dec. 11, challenged the assumption that international students take places away from U.S. students. Documenting the parallel growth of domestic and international graduate students from 1995 to 2005, the data suggested a “cross-subsidization” through which tuition income from international students allowed campuses to extend more financial support to domestic students as well. Using Open Doors data and assisted by IIE’s research team at the inception of his study, assistant professor Kevin Shih of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute reviewed a key decade in international student flows, during which international enrollments initially soared, declined for a few years after 9/11, and then bounced back again to reach new highs.

What Shih found, in brief, was that every gain of 10 international students resulted in a gain of eight U.S. students, a trend especially clear at the master’s level where most students pay full tuition. While he focused on graduate students, this cross-subsidization is likely even more true at the undergraduate level, where large numbers of “full-paying” undergraduates from China help close the budget gaps caused by drastic cuts in state funding, and make it possible for campuses to not only sustain faculty salaries but also to provide tuition support for lower-income U.S. undergraduates.

As we continue to highlight the many academic and cross-cultural benefits that international students bring to their American classmates – especially to the 90 percent who do not get to study abroad before graduating – we now can also point to research showing how their tuition dollars help finance domestic students, rather than taking slots away from them. IIE first made this argument back in the late 1980s, with its groundbreaking research study Boon or Bane: International Engineering Students on U.S. Campuses.

The main argument proposed by Boon or Bane, that too few U.S. students choose to pursue graduate education in STEM fields, remains true today. Equally true is the fact that international students’ tuition and academic contributions help sustain America’s leadership in science and technology fields, just as they help provide financial support to needy U.S. undergraduates and grad students.