One of my favorite students last year is an international student from France. A thoroughly delightful human being, J struggled with the transition to our university. To hear them describe it, the biggest challenge was leaving behind a cosmopolitan area and moving to a small, relatively conservative town.
I worried about them a lot last year. Now I worry a bit more. I wonder whether they’ll be back.
According to The PIE News, “politics is becoming a bigger influence on international students’ decisions.” Data from the QS21 International Student Survey indicates that safety is a top concern for potential students.
When asked “How important is it to you that the university you choose offers the following support services?” students indicated a health and medical center as a top concern:
When asked “What worries you most about studying in a different country?” safety neared the top of the list:
In particular, PIE News reports that Chinese students have cited concerns about increasing gun violence — both in general, and in particular against Chinese students — as a reason to consider the US an unsafe educational destination.
In 2020, Times Higher Education reported that “Republican states saw big drops in overseas students under Trump,” noting that “international students are drawn to cosmopolitan areas, which tend to be more liberal, while postgraduate students may be ‘sensitive to states’ political conditions.”
ForeignPolicy notes that the US is increasingly an outlier in the international community, not only because it has lifted protections for women seeking abortions but because of its troubling decline in democratic values. Shifting international perceptions of the US more broadly may very well impact international admissions.
Now, with increased risks for students needing reproductive healthcare, international students who consider studying in the US may limit themselves to states where abortion remains legal not just for their healthcare options but because of their overall perception of where they will be most safe.
One troubling aspect of all this is the way these factors may contribute to polarization not only within the US but within US higher education. Imagine a worst-case scenario: wealthy schools in states where abortion is accessible attract increasing concentrations of women and female-identifying students; of women with limited financial means; of women with black and brown skins; of indigenous women; of international students; of students who are parents; and of immigrants. Even more, some of those schools will be attractive because they fully underwrite their entire undergraduate population — and a select few of them (most recently Bowdoin is added to this list) offer need-blind admissions even to international students.
Why would I call that a worst-case scenario, when those schools have such an excellent prognosis for diversification and the ability to educate such a full range of citizens?
That’s actually wonderful for those – few – schools. I want that for them.
The thing is, I want that for the rest of us, too.
But schools in states with restrictive laws, in states where international students may fear for the effects of politics that leave them unsafe, may suffer. Our diversity goals might fade in the distance as students who feel put at risk seek safe havens elsewhere.
I don’t want us to stand silently watching while politics further undermines higher education as an industry — especially not like this. The whole principle of a democratic education is equal access to equal education for all. Yes, we have been slowly moving towards equity, inclusion, and belonging. And yes, we have a long way to go. All the more reason for us to keep taking the actions, taking the stances, promoting the conversations that maintain forward momentum.
Dobbs is a huge backward movement for women’s rights, individual rights, and the once-presumed right to privacy all humans deserve. Abortion has long (always?) been a divisive topic, but the Dobbs decision contributes to the larger struggle colleges and universities face as cultures and laws that leave students feeling unsafe result in an increasingly uneven distribution of students and resources across the country. The diminishment of diversification, civic engagement, and basic human compassion is a massive loss not just for colleges and universities in red states but for all of us as US citizens…and as human beings. We cannot both stand back and accept that diminishment — and also honestly subscribe to our missions to educate students for active participation in a globally diverse society. Our silent acceptance undermines our commitment to our missions.
Our potential international students are not the only ones who are scared. And they are not the only ones watching. It feels slightly hysterical to say that democracy hangs in the balance, but honestly, that future is much closer than I ever thought I would see in my lifetime.
Drop a note in the comments to share what you and your colleagues are doing on your campus. I’m eager to see the broader picture. 🧡
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