The state of global engagement at U.S. colleges and universities

The COVID-19 pandemic had a dampening effect on higher education’s international reach, but institutions’ commitment to globalization has persisted, according to a new report from the American Council on Education (ACE), according to Higher Ed Dive. Every five years, ACE analyzes institutional internationalization or global engagement of U.S. colleges and universities. Internationalization efforts typically include forming partnerships with overseas institutions, hiring faculty with international backgrounds, and preparing students for a globally connected world, Diverse Issues in Higher Education reports.

Report: International student enrollments rebounding after years of declines, survey reports >

ACE’s report showed that although COVID-19 impacted international student enrollment, internationalization began slowing before the pandemic, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. Seventy-two percent of the 903 colleges and universities included in the report indicated that their institutions were accelerating internationalization efforts in 2016. However, from 2016 to 2020, that number fell to 47%, and during the pandemic, 60% reported that their level of institutional internationalization was low or very low.

The share of colleges that included international or global education in their mission statements or strategic plans fell from 51% in 2012 to 43% in the latest report. The share of colleges with international education among the top five priorities in their strategic plan also dropped from 52% in 2012 to just 36%. Aside from the pandemic, possible reasons for the decline in internationalization include growing negativity surrounding globalization and more nationalist policies during the Trump administration, according to a 2019 analysis by the Chronicle.

Future of internationalization

Yet, the ACE report revealed signs of sustained commitment to globalization despite pandemic disruptions. Just over one-fifth (21%) of colleges said their schools increased globalization efforts during the pandemic from 2020 to 2021, while 38% reported that a reliance on technology at the beginning of the pandemic increased access to international communities for students who are otherwise excluded from global learning programs.

“In terms of student mobility, there wasn’t much equity to start with,” Dr. Philip G. Altbach, a research professor at the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, tells Diverse Issues in Higher Education. “Most of the kids who are going overseas are not first-generation students; [they] are kids from middle class, upper-middle class backgrounds from the more prestigious colleges and universities.”

Despite trends indicating decreases in internationalization, 66% of the college and university presidents and senior higher education administrators surveyed by ACE indicated that their institution’s overall level of global engagement will increase over the next five years. Institutions committed to returning to the world stage report being motivated by diversity, equity, and inclusion goals, the report says.

When asked their reasons for internationalizing, colleges most commonly cited preparing students for a more global era (70%), diversifying student, faculty, and staff (64%), and recruiting more international students (45%). To support a more multicultural student population, colleges reported increasing institutional support for international students and individualized academic support services and orientation services. Fifty-four percent of respondents also said that they provided mental health services for their international students in 2021.

Topics in this story

Next Up

The changing nature of ‘merit’ aid at public institutions

Public colleges and universities are increasingly providing tuition discounts for wealthier students through non-need-based “merit” aid. The trend is exacerbating disparities in college access for lower-income students, experts say.