The American Dream isn’t over for international students

Students take their seats for the diploma ceremony at the John F. Kennedy School of Government during the 361st Commencement Exercises at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts May 24, 2012. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

When our sons decided to attend universities in the U.S., the reaction from British friends was usually incredulity mixed with pity. It’s not that they thought we’d miss the boys; they worried we’d miss our retirement.

They also struggled to see the point. There are excellent universities closer to home at a fraction of the cost. Britain is a giant in higher education in its own right. Its universities are disproportionately represented on international league tables, and it’s the largest destination for American students studying abroad. The application process is also easier, and selection, even at the top, is often less competitive than elite U.S. schools. Why make life harder?

As someone who grew up in the U.S., I had reasons for wanting our kids to experience life there. But sometimes I’ve wondered the same thing, including right now, when both the U.K. government and the Biden administration look set to trade travel restrictions due to covid. But I want to make the case that, although the pandemic and four years of Donald Trump have disrupted the transatlantic trade of higher education in many ways, the allure of studying in the U.S. isn’t going away.

Indeed, preliminary data from the Common App, which handles applications for 900 U.S. institutions, show that the volume of international applications for the autumn are up 11%, with a 20% rise in applications from the U.K. Some are already calling it the “Biden bump.”

That may seen surprising given recent numbers. The total number of international students in the U.S., still over 1 million, declined by 1.8% in 2020, the first annual drop since the mid 2000s.

British students make up only a tiny portion of that, but after rising for a decade, their numbers dropped 3.5% in 2020. Whether it was Trump’s hostility to international students, reflected in more stringent visa rules, the ever-rising costs of a U.S. degree (made worse in the U.K. by the Brexit vote’s hit to the pound) or the toxic political environment, there has been plenty to give students pause about America in recent years.

The pandemic has added another layer of complexity. Families may be rethinking whether they want kids stuck far from home if there is a crisis, especially if travel remains difficult. In a more challenging job market there is added scrutiny of the value proposition of a degree, including how much students are willing to pay – or how much debt they are willing to accumulate.

The past year has also made it much harder to showcase the benefits of the U.S. college experience. With few exceptions, there was little or no in-person classes and almost none of that famed campus life – no clubs or society gatherings over pizza, no small discussion groups, varsity sports fixtures or high-profile speakers to shake hands with. Socializing remains restricted. Forget meaningful contact with professors.

“Harvard is a streaming video platform that costs $58,000 a year,” Scott Galloway, a professor of marketing at NYU’s Stern School of Business, has said. He wasn’t even counting the costs of housing, food, travel and health insurance and books, which easily bring the bill to over $70,000 a year at an elite private school.

Although some U.S. schools charge substantially less than the top tier, they still end up costing far more than the maximum $10,424 a year for tuition in the U.K. And unlike U.S. residents, international applicants more often have to pay the full sticker price.

Harvard likely isn’t worried about losing applications. Highly selective schools feel safe in charging exorbitant fees because of the market value that admission provides, as Galloway acknowledges. But lower-tier U.S. schools, which use international fees to subsidize domestic students, may struggle to justify their price tags.

Still, it’s important to remember that what draws students to the U.S. isn’t likely to fundamentally change. Many are drawn to the depiction of college life found in so many Hollywood films and the vast range of environments on offer. There’s also the labor market appeal. U.S. universities offer broader networks. They produce more CEOs and more millionaires, but also more philanthropists and leaders than anywhere else. And the biggest selling point is the flexibility of the U.S. experience.

American students often don’t declare a major until their second year of college; they have time to try before they buy. Even once they decide on a focus, there’s room to branch out. Students can major in engineering and still take a course in poetry or Nabokov. Want a dual degree in economics and psychology? No problem.

American admissions processes are also unique: They look at applicants holistically, taking into account high school grades, exam results and a range of extracurriculars. They don’t just seek proof of hard knowledge, but a picture of what an applicant has done with the opportunities she has been given.

In Britain students apply to a particular course and that is pretty much all they study for a typically three-year degree. Even the application process forces a narrowing of options, as they can apply to a maximum of five courses. Even during the last two years of high school education, students take only three or four subjects that prepare them for their chosen field in university. Admissions decisions are largely based on exam results.

The argument in favor of this approach is that students develop greater depth and expertise. It’s also efficient: In four years you can have an undergraduate and a master’s degree in many cases. But for students who want more time to explore their options – or have even begun to question their choices during the pandemic – the U.S. offers an alternative route.

“This year everyone is worried about covid,” says Allan Goodman, head of the Institute for International Education, which has been promoting international student exchanges over over a century. “But I do know that when pandemics end, international mobility resumes. And it tends to resume very rapidly and almost always grows.”

Over the longer term, a growing international middle class will likely mean increasing global demand for higher education. Colleges in the U.S. may even continue to make the standardized SAT/ACT test optional to encourage more applications. U.S. study may also become more attractive if the Biden administration improves access to student visas and work permits. British students, who no longer have access to the European Union’s foreign study Erasmus program due to Brexit, may increasingly set their sights on going to the U.S. instead, especially if they receive some funding from the U.K.’s new study abroad program.

Although there is still uncertainty about whether campus life will resume this autumn, its absence has only underscored the value of the U.S. college experience – of face-to-face learning, large libraries and laboratories and diverse communities.

Despite the downer of remote classes and a restricted social life, our sons insist they are happy with their choice to study in America. Then again, they aren’t paying the bills.

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

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