Un-problematizing International Students

Un-problematizing International Students

Jason E. Lane
State University of New York, Albany

Last fall at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education, I was a discussant for a set of papers that sought to “problematize” international students. The authors explored various theoretical perspectives to demonstrate the ways in which higher education professionals think international students could directly affect how an institution chooses to engage with those students. My engagement with the panel caused me to reflect that international students are increasingly being labeled as a single monolithic group and that such an approach can cover up the rich diversity of associated experiences and backgrounds. As the presence of international students on our campuses increases, it is important for student affairs leaders and practitioners to understand, appreciate, and engage with this diversity.

The one theme that stuck in my head from the paper was the concern that we often frame international students as a form of revenue generation or economic development. This idea of viewing international students as a form of economic development is not new and I would be surprised if readers have not heard or considered international students from this perspective. Discussions about international students as revenue generators often feel like a dirty little secret that everyone knows about, but no one openly acknowledges; however, the topic has been receiving more public attention. Last October, Karin Fischer at the Chronicle of Higher Education actually tried to bring this issue into the forefront by asking: What if colleges acknowledge that “foreign students are cash cows?” This of course is not the first time that such issues have been discussed publicly. For years, NAFSA: Association of International Educators has examined the economic benefits of international education in the United States. In announcing the most recent Open Doors report on study abroad trends in the United States, the Institute for International Education (IIE) framed international students as having an economic and social impact. To be fair, I have also been one of those who have written about the economic contributions of internationalization of higher education to both the institution and the local economy.

While I firmly believe that we need to be forthright about the economic contributions of international students, this should not overshadow the fact that these individuals are attending our institutions in the pursuit of higher education. Many families are spending their life savings to provide their child(ren) with the opportunity at a new life—one that benefits from the experiences of an advanced education. If we choose to admit international students, then we have an obligation to provide them with the highest quality educational experience—the same principles we hold for our domestic students. However, there are examples, such as with Dickinson State University, wherein the “cash cow” mentality can lead to questionable academic and social experiences for international students. An audit of the university suggested that the need for sustaining enrollments may have led to degrees being awarded to hundreds of international students who did not fully meet the requirements, raising questions about the legitimacy of their educational experience and their credential. That is simply not fair to international students or to the other students for whom we take responsibility to educate.

Rather than trying to problematize international students, I want to use the release of the recent Open Doors data to try to expand our understanding of our international student population. The Open Doors report is released annually and tracks the number of United States students who study abroad and the number of international students who come to the United States to study.

In the 2011-2012 academic year, there were 764,495 international students studying in the United States. This was a 6% increase over last year and 31% increase over the past decade. The largest concentration of international students are in the highly populated states of California, New York, Texas, Massachusetts, and Illinois, though the largest increases in the number of international students occurred in Pennsylvania, Florida, and Indiana, each with more than 10% growth. New York City remained the most popular metropolitan destination.

One of the themes from this year’s report is that international students have increasingly come to recognize the great diversity of colleges and universities in the United States. The top receiving institutions remain well-established institutions, with well-regarded reputations—University of Southern California, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, New York University, Purdue University, and Columbia University. Yet, there has also been an increase in students attending other institutional types such as liberal arts colleges, community colleges, and regional comprehensive institutions. Such trends further underscore the need for student affairs practitioners across the academy to understand the changing trends in international students.

International students are highly diverse with regards to their origin. The primary origination country remains China, which saw nearly 200,000 students depart to the United States in 2011-2012, almost double the number of students sent by India, which originates the second highest number of students. Chinese students accounted for a quarter of all international students in the 2010-2011 academic year. The remaining top three countries of origin are South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Canada, though students come from a wide range of countries from all over the world, including Nepal, Brazil, Indonesia, Iran, Venezuela, and Russia.

There tends to be an assumption that many of our international students are financed by a foreign government or financial scheme; however, the data from IIE indicates that a vast majority of international students (63.6%) self-finance their education using personal or family resources. This demonstrates a substantive commitment on behalf of students and their family in pursuing an “American” higher education. Only about 5.8% of international students receive funding from a foreign government or university, a significantly lower number than the percentage that receives some form of financing from a United States college or university (21.5%). Other forms of financing include private sponsors (foreign and domestic), the United States Government, and international organizations among others. In other words, the financial background of students adds another level of diversity that should be accounted for when dealing with international students. We should not consider them all to be either affluent or disadvantaged – they can run the gamut, much like our domestic students.

One of the most interesting themes from this year’s Open Doors report was that the number of international undergraduate students outnumbered the number of international graduate students for the first time since 2000-2001. The population of undergraduate students from foreign countries fell precipitously following September 11, 2001—at a much greater rate than at the graduate levels. Furthermore, it took an entire decade for those numbers to rebound and, once again, overtake the corresponding graduate student numbers. These increases also mean that there are more international students engaging in the undergraduate experience and will likely need assistance and engagement from student affairs practitioners in many areas of student success, such as academic support, health and counseling, student activities and leadership, and so forth.

With the number of international students expanding on our college campuses, it is increasingly important for student affairs practitioners to respond to the changing demographics on their campuses. International students tend to require additional assistance with the college transition than their domestic peers, as they are learning to not just navigate a new educational experience, but also a new culture and country and, in many cases, a new language. Moreover, as I discussed in my last column, there is growing evidence of international students being isolated on campuses. Helping students overcome this isolation will likely require more targeted advising that helps students become engaged and develop social networks. But, such isolation could also lead to more mental health issues becoming manifested on college campuses.

Taken collectively, the evidence suggests a growing need for institutions, and their student affairs leaders and practitioners, to engage more meaningfully with the growing population of international students across the United States.

Discussion Questions

  • What are the backgrounds of the international students on your campus?
  • What types of resources does you campus make available for international students? Do you believe these resources are adequate to meet the needs of the students on your campus?
  • How might your student affairs division better serve international students?


Fischer, K. (October 16, 2012). ‘Fess up: Foreign students are cash cows. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/What-If-Colleges-Acknowledged/135080/

About the Author

Jason E. Lane is Director of Education Studies at the Rockefeller Institute of Government, associate professor of educational administration and policy studies, and a senior researcher with the Institute for Global Education Policy Studies at the State University of New York, Albany. He is member of the governing boards of the Comparative and International Education Society and the Council for International Higher Education and is an Associate of the International Association of Universities. His most recent books include Academic Leadership and Governance of Higher Education (Stylus Press), Colleges and Universities as Economic Drivers (SUNY Press), and Multi-National Colleges and Universities: Leading, Governing, and Managing International Branch (Jossey-Bass). More about the author and his research on cross-border education can be found here.

Please e-mail inquiries to Jason E. Lane.


The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

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