A new report from the American Council on Education highlights the dampening effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on internationalization efforts in higher education—while underscoring institutions’ optimistic outlook for future growth.
The ACE report is based on a survey conducted every five years, in which college and university leaders answer questions about how their institution is engaging on a global scale. That engagement, known as internationalization, is measured through a number of factors, including international student enrollment, participation in study abroad and exchange programs, and the development of globally relevant curricula.
The latest iteration of the report includes data collected from 2021 and finds that the pandemic sharply reversed internationalization progress in higher ed.
“Years of steady increases in internationalization efforts were stymied during the COVID-19 global pandemic,” it says.
U.S. higher education institutions saw a 46 percent drop in new international students and a 15 percent drop in total international enrollment in academic year 2020–21, according to a separate report from the Institute for International Education, whose researchers provided enrollment analysis for the ACE report. That number rebounded slightly in fall 2021, with a 68 percent increase from the previous year in new international students and a 4 percent overall increase, but the rate of growth had plateaued.
According to the ACE report, 72 percent of institutions reported increasing internationalization in 2016, when the last report was conducted. In the most recent survey, that number dropped to 43 percent for the period between 2016 and 2020; during the 2020—21 academic year, it fell even more, to 21 percent.
But despite the bleak outlook, the report found that colleges and universities remain largely committed to internationalization. When asked how they foresee their institution’s level of internationalization changing over the next five years, 66 percent of respondents said they anticipated an increase.
“Yes, there was a precipitous decline, but institutions were still keeping up their efforts. That really speaks to institutional resilience and agility,” said Maria Claudia Soler, a senior research analyst at ACE who managed the project.
Soler said that when travel and other institutional expenditures declined during the pandemic, colleges and universities increased investment in training faculty to “improve the international dimensions of their curriculum,” making courses more global in their scope.
“Institutions are realizing in a way that internationalization goes beyond mobility,” she said. “The pandemic put us in front of that reality. It really pushed us to think more about what’s going on in other parts of the world and how we can work together to make the world better.”
The report noted that going forward, colleges and universities may focus their internationalization efforts on different countries; while China was the No. 1 response for existing partnerships, institutions named India as the country they were most eager to partner with in the future.
‘Dark Clouds Ahead’
William Brustein, a history professor at West Virginia University who served as the university’s vice president for global strategies and international affairs until 2020, described himself as “less optimistic than many” about the future of higher education’s internationalization efforts.
Thanks to their brand recognition, elite institutions like those in the Ivy League won’t have trouble recruiting wealthy international students or forging partnerships around the world, he said. But other institutions may not fare so well, due to the high cost of a U.S. undergraduate education, coupled with shifting views of its value abroad and a decline in support from college administrators.
“Of course, comprehensive internationalization matters. But having been in senior administration, I know that the bottom line for investing in it was having high-paying international undergraduates,” said Brustein, who has served in administrative roles in international education since the early 2000s.
As the promise of that revenue wanes, Brustein said, “the commitment we had from senior administrators is no longer there.”
“One reason I stepped down from my position [as senior vice president of global strategies at WVU in 2020] was that the ambitious agenda I had been brought here for was just not getting the support anymore,” he said. “I think there are very dark clouds ahead.”
Bright Spots in a Changing Landscape
But Brustein isn’t entirely bearish on internationalization.
“I’ve painted a pretty dark picture, but if there’s light out there, it’s that now universities are looking at innovative ways to internationalize using digital tools and virtual learning,” he said. “The employment of these new technologies and platforms is really going to open things up to partners and students that weren’t able or interested before.”
The ACE report shows that investment in digital platforms grew significantly over the course of the pandemic. The share of virtual internships increased from 5 percent to 28 percent during the pandemic, allowing U.S. students to work with companies overseas and international students to intern with U.S. firms. And 38 percent of survey respondents reported that their efforts to expand virtual global exchanges accelerated during the pandemic.
Soler said that moving forward, new technologies and training in virtual learning could make international education and exchange easier to facilitate.
“We did observe institutions opening virtual pathways for students to participate in COIL [collaborative online learning] and in international internships in ways we haven’t seen before, and that was huge in terms of access,” she said. “For institutions that were able to be innovative and creative despite the disruptions, there is a lot of opportunity to do more of that in the future.”
In devising innovative ways to facilitate that exchange, she said, institutions have set the stage for more open and accessible international initiatives.
“The pandemic was the element that made us all wake up, in a way,” she said. “I think it really made some campuses say, ‘we need to open up these opportunities in ways we hadn’t thought of in the past.’”