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Is Recruiting More International Students the Solution to College Financial Woes?

As a tough economy drives more and more students away from a college education, a number of institutions in the U.S. have gotten proactive about pursuing international students to supplement their coffers. Does this strategy work? And what about all that international competition?

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By Eric Garneau

International Students at Home

When it comes to public universities, in-state students almost always pay less for their education than out-of-state students do. That's because state governments subsidize the funds of residents that attend those institutions. However, in the midst of economic hardships, that funding to campuses decreases. Also dropping is the number of students who decide to look outside their home state for higher education - when pocketbooks tighten students tend to stay closer to home.

That is, except for out-of-country students. International seekers of higher ed have been a tremendous boon to the U.S. economy over the past several years. As of 2011, the Institute of International Education (IIE) reports that they contribute over $21 billion to the economy annually through tuition and living expenses. In fact, the IIE notes that 'higher education is among the U.S.'s top service sector exports.'

Why is that so? For one, American institutions of higher education are typically thought of as the best in the world. Whether or not that's true, that perception of prestige goes a long way towards attracting a bevy of international learners. So even though international students pay institutions the same as out-of-state students, an influx of global learners can make up for shortcomings back home. U.S. colleges know that, and they've been getting aggressive in their international recruiting policies, some even controversially so. The student-run news site NextGenJournal.com mentions heightened international efforts among California public universities, for instance, where every one percent increase in out-of-state/international students equals more than one million dollars in additional revenue. Article author Christopher Carter concludes 'in a state marred by enormous debt, (enrolling international students) remains a promising sign of life.'

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International Students Abroad

Of course, the U.S. isn't the only country to figure out that international students mean good money. The U.K.'s been hip to that knowledge for some time too. A 2010 article in The Economist notes that as far as price and power to attract international learners go, Britain, the U.S. and Australia are major competitors. And like in the States, U.K. schools stand to benefit financially when international students enroll in their courses. According to The Economist, over ten percent of university income in the U.K. comes from other countries.

In fact, the U.K. and other nations of the European Union are getting just as serious as the U.S. about international recruitment. This past September Copenhagen, Denmark played host to the annual meeting of the European Association for International Education, and The Chronicle of Higher Education notes that the conference 'drew record numbers,' with over 4,000 individuals in attendance. Of specific focus at the conference was marketing strategies - how can European schools attractively brand and sell themselves to an international audience? Clearly the world of international higher education's becoming an aggressive one, with many nations throwing themselves into the competition.

A Global Education

But then, is it that surprising that so many countries' institutions are working their way towards providing education for citizens around the globe? As technology breaks down and reshapes what it means to live in a community we call our own, our world becomes smaller every day. One need look no farther than initiatives like OER University and the African Virtual University to see international boundaries become virtually meaningless when it comes to education.

Of course, financially those boundaries still hold meaning, and that's what all these universities are banking on. For international students who want the classic brick-and-mortar higher ed experience, choices were once limited primarily to U.S., U.K. and Australian schools. Now that's starting to change, and countries that only used to export students now have institutions of their own to offer; they can import students as well. The ultimate end of this scenario is some kind of worldwide equilibrium where students can obtain an education wherever they see fit, unfettered from geographical boundaries. And while for the foreseeable future there will likely remain some countries that primarily export learners and others that primarily import them, the higher prices these international students pay across the board contributes to a global economy that's richer in both financial and educational capital.

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