The US should take its higher education to the world

For decades, the US has been the preferred global destination for higher education. Bolstered by their reputation for quality, US colleges and universities attract hundreds of thousands of East Asian, Middle Eastern, Latin American and South Asian nationals to their home campuses every year.

Social and political developments, however, have put a damper on the influx. Large segments of the American population have turned decidedly anti-immigrant. Recent Gallup polls indicate that the majority of Americans oppose increasing the level of immigration, including immigration associated with study.

This sentiment, along with national security concerns and the lingering effects of the pandemic, has resulted in a tightening of US visa restrictions and a slowing of inbound student mobility. In addition, many families in the Islamic world, East Asia and Latin America now question the wisdom of sending their children to the US for study. Increasingly, they are turning to seemingly safer and more welcoming destinations, such as Canada, Australia, Malaysia, Argentina and Turkey.

But if all the world cannot – or does not want – to come to the US for higher education, why not take American higher education to all the world? Why not increase the outbound mobility of US colleges and universities? Why not deliver degree programmes, short courses, management training sessions, conferences, seminars and academic advice in the students’ countries of residence?

Various arrangements can facilitate this endeavour. One is to forge a partnership with another college or university, such as New York University’s alliance with China Normal University to establish NYU Shanghai. Among the advantages are enhanced academic capability, risk-sharing and the alignment of values.

Setting up overseas partnerships can also elicit the support of a foreign government, such as Carnegie Mellon’s venture with the Rwandan government to create CMU Africa. Benefits of this include logistical assistance, access to government networks and enhanced financial capability.

A further option is partnering with a multinational corporation, such as Hult International Business School’s collaboration with EF Education to set up branch campuses in Shanghai and Dubai. By leveraging the resources of a transnational enterprise, an academic institution can enhance its operational capability to deliver educational services abroad.

Yet another pathway to international markets is distance learning programmes for non-US residents who lack F-1 visas, such those sponsored by the University of Houston, San Jose State University and Goucher College. Through online delivery, colleges and universities can readily pool their resources to develop world-class programmes that draw on the best intellectual talent within each organisation. They can create interdisciplinary offerings in which the academic strengths of one institution are complemented by those of another. They can create transnational forums for comparing research results, discussing best teaching practices and sharing local perspectives. They can create “courses without borders” that span a multitude of time zones and that tap the expertise of professionals around the world.

The challenges of “going global” are admittedly daunting. They include managing logistics, organisational growth, faculty course loads and external relationships. They also include raising capital and maintaining educational quality. In some countries, defending academic freedom in the face of repressive regimes is also necessary. Yet these challenges are not insurmountable. They can be overcome through adept management, quality controls, effective oversight, accreditation guidelines and Western government support.

Beyond North America, Europe and Australia, demand for US higher education remains immense. The strength of this demand can be gleaned from the aggregate value of contracts awarded to US colleges and universities in major emerging markets, for everything from programme design, development and delivery to faculty recruitment and training. Between 2010 and 2020, international contract income was $2.6 billion (£2.3 billion) from Qatar, $1.5 billion from China, $1.4 billion from Saudi Arabia, $365 million from India, and $112 million from Brazil. Principal beneficiaries include Carnegie Mellon, with an aggregate contract value of $1.7 billion, Cornell University ($1.2 billion), Texas A&M University ($465 million), the University of Colorado at Boulder ($464 million) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology ($284 million).

We are at a crossroads in the history of American higher education. As a result of a crowded, slow-growth domestic market, the sector’s economic substructure is at risk. Therefore, its ideological superstructure – its proliferation of teaching, research, and scholarly activities in the realm of ideas – could be at risk as well.

But taking American higher education to all the world isn’t just about achieving the utilitarian goal of meeting the financial needs of American colleges and universities – or meeting the educational needs of other members of the world community.

Rather, it is also about strengthening the critical role that America plays globally in knowledge creation, intellectual advancement, and the pursuit of the truth. It is about improving the economic, social and political well-being of less-developed nations. It is about preserving the vitality of liberal, democratic ideals in the context of a changing domestic landscape and a shifting world order.

Richard J. Joseph is the former president of Babson Global, Inc, a wholly owned education subsidiary of Babson College. He was previously provost-for-term and chief academic officer of Bryant University and provost and global dean of Hult International Business School, playing a major role in establishing branch campuses in Shanghai, Dubai, London and San Francisco. His latest book is Bridging the Gap between the Abundance of American Higher Education Talent and the Immense Foreign Demand for It (Oxford University Press).

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