NACE Journal, May 2021
What does a Mercedes Benz and a college degree from an American university have in common?
For most young people from the developing world, they are both luxury items.
American universities continue to offer some of the best education in the world, but it comes with a steep price tag.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, out-of-state students—which includes international students—paid an average of more than $26,000 per year in tuition and fees.1 We all know the cost of tuition is rising for students across the board, but it’s especially bad for international students. Between 2012 and 2016, the average cost of annual tuition for international students rose by $5,000 on average, compared to $450 for domestic students.2
Furthermore, international students do not have the same access to financial aid that domestic students do.
The result is that the American higher education system has become great at recruiting students from the highest rungs of society in the developing world. It’s terrible at recruiting international students who are the most talented, students who, later in life, could make the biggest contributions to our society and economy if they chose to remain in the United States.
In the 2015/2016 academic year, 300,743 new international students enrolled for the first time at a U.S. institution. By the 2018/2019 academic year, that figure had declined by 10%.3 Politics may have played a role, but many in higher education have questioned whether affordability is the real problem.
The broken higher education system for international students puts the United States at risk of falling behind other countries in a variety of metrics.
Philosophically, it also flies in the face of the idea that education in American serves a higher purpose—to promote upward mobility and transform the lives of vulnerable students both domestic and international.
So, how do we fix this problem? How do we make an American degree inclusive and equitable for international students who are talented but not wealthy?
As a country, we must find a way to better integrate financing and job opportunities for international students into the higher education system.
In the United States, you can buy something as affordable as a refrigerator on an installment plan, yet international students who aren’t wealthy struggle to find ways to pay for their college.
Most non-citizens are not eligible for federal student aid. That means federal grants, low-cost loans, and work-study jobs are off limits. Nearly 10 million domestic students each year take advantage of these resources to fund their education, totaling about $120 billion in disbursements annually.4
International students are then left to compete for scholarships or apply for private loans to fund their education. Few lenders are willing to take a chance on financing an international student’s education, and those that do charge almost loan-shark interest rates of 13 to 15%.5 Private interest rates are based on assessed risk to the lender and on the borrower’s perceived ability to pay back the loan.
How is a private lender supposed to know whether a student from another country has the means to pay back a debt? It’s difficult for these lenders to verify the student and their family’s income, assets, debt, and property details.
According to the Institute of International Education, international students and their families end up covering about 80% of the total cost of college out of pocket.6 The rest usually comes from a mix of contributions including the school, a foreign government, and a sponsor organization.
We must make financing easier for less affluent international students.
Maybe the business community partners with the finance community to help subsidize international education, knowing it will pay off in the long run as an investment in talent development.
Maybe we defer tuition and allow international students—or all students, for that matter—to pay after they graduate, when they have a steady source of income.
In France, international students pay tuition on a sliding scale, based on their family’s income. Germany offers free tuition to all students, regardless of their nation of origin, and it is home to world-class universities.
Creating a Pipeline for Job Opportunities
An additional problem with the current financing situation is that private American lenders know many international students right now are struggling to find work in the United States after graduating.
This perpetuates the financing problem even more, and it shows how the financing, education, and job opportunity environments create an interconnected web for international students, even more so than for domestic students.
Given the chance, 80% of international students would stay in the United States to start their careers after graduating. It makes sense for them financially.7 They just spent a substantial amount of money on a college education, and the return on that investment is better here than in an emerging economy where the wages are low. After all, many of them still have loans to pay.
The truth is, though, that the same 80% end up returning home mainly because of immigration hurdles and inability to find work.8 The situation for these graduates has become even more dire in the last year as the U.S. economy struggles to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Having been away for a number of years, many of these returning students do not have the type of professional network in their home country to land a decent job. And, if they do land a decent job, it’s often still not enough to service the debt from their American education.
The first step in battling this problem is more outreach between American universities and the business community.
The universities, their career centers, and their international programs must take a more proactive approach. They need to work together to battle misconceptions about hiring international graduates and promote the many benefits of working with non-citizens.
For example, many employers still believe that recent international graduates need visa sponsorship—but it’s just not true.
Recent college grads who are not citizens can work for up to three years on an optional practical training (OPT) visa without sponsorship. Another important point for the business community is that international graduates bring diverse thinking styles and experiences, the very qualities that can help a team solve a sticky problem, expand to other markets, or develop new technologies.
Most colleges and universities have strong industry ties through their alumni, departmental advisory boards, and more. Let’s leverage those existing connections to get the word out about international talent and create a more equitable hiring environment for international students post-graduation.
As the job market improves for international graduates, financing opportunities are likely to follow suit for those just beginning the process of planning their education.
Taking a Holistic Approach
The internet is full of advice on how international students can lower the costs of their own education. Attend a less prestigious university, some articles recommend. Or consider online courses. But individual students aren’t going to solve this problem on their own through a personalized, piecemeal approach.
Collective action is necessary. Stakeholders from the educational sector, financial world, and the business community must work together to create a unified system that works. We need to keep tuition affordable, expand financing options and alternatives, and make certain that international graduates who want to work in the United States have that opportunity.
It has to be a full circle, because if any of these three components—education, financing, and job opportunities—are broken, international students will continue to struggle in the United States, and the United States will continue to struggle to attract the best international students.
Currently, the education is top-notch, but the financing and job opportunities are lagging behind.
I don’t have all the answers for what this looks like. I understand that some of these approaches may be politically unfeasible in the United States, which has a more conservative approach to government assistance and the role of the federal government in education. Nonetheless, we need leaders from across the country to begin thinking big. We must make certain that these students have access to easy financing, smooth immigration processes, an easy transition to the United States, a great education, and opportunities here to work.
Because if we don’t, America’s campuses will continue to be a playground for the international elite.
1 National Center for Education Statistics. Digest of Education Statistics 2019. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d19/tables/dt19_330.20.asp.
2 Cooper, Preston (2018, November 20). Why international students are giving up on U.S. colleges. Foundation for Economic Education. Retrieved from https://fee.org/articles/why-international-students-are-giving-up-on-us-colleges/.
3 Institute of International Education/Open Doors. New international student enrollment. Retrieved from https://opendoorsdata.org/data/international-students/new-international-students-enrollment/.
4 U.S. Department of Education. Federal Student Aid Annual Report FY 2019. Retrieved from https://studentaid.gov/sites/default/files/FY_2019_Federal_Student_Aid_Annual_Report.pdf.
5 Kirkham, Elyssa (2021, April 5). Best international student loans. The Balance. Retrieved from www.thebalance.com/best-international-student-loans-5087320.
6 Institute of International Education/Open Doors. Open Doors 2020 Fast Facts. Retrieved from https://opendoorsdata.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Open-Doors-2020-Fast-Facts.pdf.
7 QS Quacquarelli Symonds (2020, April 24). QS International Student Survey 2020 report. Retrieved from www.qs.com/portfolio-items/international-student-survey-2020/ .
8 Mackie, Chris (2019, December 10). OPT’s critical importance to enrollment and other takeaways from the 2019 Open Doors report. World Education News and Reviews. Retrieved from https://wenr.wes.org/2019/12/opts-critical-importance-to-enrollment-and-other-takeaways-from-the-2019-open-doors-report.