The US press is starting to realize that many American universities are not doing a great job of integrating international students on their campuses. In the last few days, both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times have published articles about international students struggling with English and the norms of the US education system, sticking together in country-of-origin cliques, and generally making local students and residents feel uncomfortable. These, of course, are the same issues that come up when dealing with other types of migrants.
Universities often see international students in purely economic or transactional terms: you give us tuition dollars, and we give you a diploma. As a part of that transaction, you may come to live in our community for a few years. What that looks like and how we can make that experience work well for everyone is not particularly important to think about.
European governments thought the same way about guest workers from the Middle East during the postwar boom. They’d bring in bodies for a predetermined time, exchange marks and francs for labor, and send the bodies back. But those bodies weren’t robots. As the Swiss writer Max Frisch had said, they asked for workers but people came. Social beings with all of the complications that being social entails.
International students are not just cash cows, and it is time that universities recognized that. Support for international students needs to increase in line with increases in international enrollment. If managed with care, international education can be desirable and beneficial for everyone involved. The WSJ and NYT articles point to several issues that universities could change (either as individual institutions or as a collective) to better manage the influx of foreign students:
- Give more intensive language support. Weak English skills are a major barrier to academic performance and social integration. However, with the exception of elite, well-known institutions, it could be unrealistic for colleges and universities to raise the admissions cutoff for English proficiency scores. For many students, institutions beyond the most well-known are largely interchangeable, and there is likely to be a university somewhere else that would take them. An alternative solution would be to require more English courses for students below a certain test score threshold, or to build a bridge program for students with strengths elsewhere but weaker language skills.
- Distribute students more evenly. International students are only 4% of college and university students in the US, but they are heavily concentrated on certain campuses, in certain residential areas on/near campus, and in certain majors. The WSJ article starts off with a story about a student living an entirely Chinese life despite going to school in rural Illinois. Residential services could start by mixing international and domestic students in dorms. In the classroom, instructors could make sure that assignment groups are diverse, if possible.
- Encourage student work opportunities. International students often want to stay in the country to work, and employers are hungry to hire them. The second biggest problem for students who want to work (after work visas) is language and cultural competence. Employers want graduates who speak English well and understand the norms and culture of the American workplace. Universities could facilitate this by encouraging international students to work on-campus before they graduate (and provide language and cultural support for the students and for their campus employers). Not only will the students be practicing English and learning workplace norms on the job, but they will also likely to put in contact with domestic students and local community members, who may not have other opportunities to interact with foreign students.