Unintended consequences

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(HOST) Commentator Olin Robison shares his thoughts on higher education and the law of unintended consequences.

(ROBISON) I have long believed and continue to believe that America’s most important export is not cars, or computer chips, or pharmaceuticals. It is higher education. Higher education, namely America’s colleges and universities, remain the one “industry” in the United States – to use an infelicitous term – where we are the undisputed world leader. Put bluntly another way: The best of America’s colleges and universities are the best in the world.

It isn’t that there aren’t great universities elsewhere. Of course there are. But, taken as a group, the United States sets the world standard.

It is because of this that the United States continues to attract well over a half million students each year from other parts of the world to America’s campuses. This has been true for a long time.

Statistics on all of this always lag about a year behind.

Even so, it is noteworthy that last year was the first time in over thirty years that there was a decline in the overall number of international students enrolled on American campuses. Numbers for the current year are not yet available, so it is too early to tell whether last year’s numerical decline was an aberration or the beginning of a trend.

Numbers from the Middle East are sharply down while numbers from India and South Korea are slightly up. India, in fact, is now the country of origin for more international students than any other nation. There were last year just over 75,000 students from India on American campuses, almost 15% of the national total. Other countries in the top five are China, South Korea, Japan and Canada. It is noteworthy that four of these five are Asian countries.

On the receiving end, the University of Southern California, or USC, in Los Angeles, leads the way with over 6,000 international students last year. USC has long been the national leader in this regard. Others in the top five are Columbia, Purdue, NYU, and the University of Texas at Austin – each of which has long hosted large numbers of students from abroad.

Contrary to some popular misconceptions, most of these young people return to their home countries where many eventually assume key leadership roles at home.

Since the tragedies of 9/11 with the subsequent American concerns about homeland security, the Patriot Act, etcetera, there is a growing perception abroad that the United States no longer has the welcome mat out for so many students. The visa process has become more complicated. Security procedures are frequently seen as humiliating barriers.

Truth to tell, it is quite hard to distinguish between hard facts and perceptions. But perceptions usually govern behavior.

In addition, other countries with English speaking universities are now aggressively recruiting the best and brightest to their campuses. At the forefront of these efforts are universities in the United Kingdom, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand.

If last year’s diminution in numbers proves to be a trend, it is America that will be the big loser. It could prove to be an unintended consequence of all those well-intentioned moves to make America more secure.

Should that happen, the long term costs are very high indeed.

This is Olin Robison.

Olin Robison (RAW-biss-un) is past president of both the Salzburg Seminar and Middlebury College. He now lives in Shelburne.

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