International Students: More Than Just Dollar Signs to U.S. Universities

When students from abroad attend American universities, their ideas enrich us.
Shutterstock.com

This story is part of Governing's annual International issue.

Over the course of the last few years we’ve had the opportunity to give a number of presentations at schools of public policy. This is fun for us, largely because the audiences tend to be excited about new ideas -- in contrast to many public-sector employees who are more inclined to be skeptical.

At these events, we are repeatedly struck by the number of students who are attending an American school of public policy or administration even though their lands of origin are a multitude of countries from around the world -- every place from China to Turkey to France to Brazil.

Obviously this is a very profitable line of business for the schools themselves. Often foreign students are subsidized by their countries, and they don’t typically request or receive scholarships. We got interested in this phenomenon and asked around to see what the benefits of such an education were to visitors. But the first reaction we got was something of a surprise to us. Many observers took note of the value for Americans of having international students in their classes. The reality is that for states and large cities and counties, there’s very little that involves public policymaking -- including food safety, economic development and transportation -- that doesn’t involve global affairs. Consider, for example, a class that might be examining the pros and cons of public-private partnerships (P3s). Although there’s a significant trend toward such arrangements in the United States, other countries like China and France have a leg up. Discussions of P3s in China have been a major area of study and investigation.

Students with a first-hand knowledge of how these arrangements have worked out bring a great deal to the class.

Elizabeth Tatum is a second-year student at the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania. “It has absolutely enriched my graduate education to hear [international] students talk about the issues they are passionate about,” Tatum says, like, “rights for women in Turkey, the need for better education and health care in Pakistan, planning challenges in growing cities in Mexico, and anticorruption efforts in Indonesia.”

Do these kinds of conversations impart genuine expertise to issues? It’s not reasonable to expect that. But, as Tatum says, the discussions “helped me refine arguments for the policy changes I think we need here. Furthermore, I think the presence of international students has reinforced my commitment to public service here.”

Another example of the power of foreign students to educate Americans is Pavel Javalera, a Mexican student at Fels. He has helped put the question of Common Core criteria for American education into perspective for his classmates. Apparently in Mexico a similar program has long been in place—and has not been controversial because education is essentially a function of the federal government, with states having only a modest capacity to make change.

That’s a valuable perspective, but equally important may be the fact that a common core has been far from a panacea for Mexican students, even though the educational system has not resisted.

Of course, it’s not as though droves of foreign students are seeking a policy program in America because they have some kind of altruistic desire to share their experiences with the students they find there. There are a number of reasons why this trend has been beneficial for them.

For one thing, the reputation of the American universities in this discipline is well known worldwide. In a day when people are growing accustomed to hearing that the U.S. is outstripped by other countries in all kinds of educational fields, we can take solace that in public policy education and other fields of higher education we’re No. 1. “American higher education is still viewe internationally as the gold standard,” says David Thornburgh, executive director of Fels.

Some observers point specifically to China, which is sending a lot of students to this country. Like students from other nations, many do not stay in America after they get their degree. But they find themselves with an advantage when returning to China. There, public officials are held in high esteem and are generously paid.

Additionally, there are a variety of lines of coursework that may be difficult or impossible to find abroad, but which are relatively commonplace here. For example, many U.S. schools have coursework in performance measurement, while schools abroad do not. The same is true with ethics and human organization. At the core, says Marc Holzer, dean of the school of public affairs and administration at Rutgers University, “we deal with management competencies that are better defined than what they are encountering in their home countries.”

But aren’t the government structures in other parts of the world so alien to that in the states, that the policy and management techniques taught here might be of little use elsewhere? There may be some truth to that, but there’s no need to overcomplicate matters. The kinds of services provided by government -- particularly at the local level -- are pretty familiar from Madagascar to Maine.

Sanitation, water cleanliness, air cleanliness, infrastructure, financial policies and more are all on the international list.

“Mayors say there’s no Republican way or Democratic way to fill a pothole,” says Thornburgh. “Well, there’s no difference between countries.”

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. You can enter an anonymous Display Name or connect to a social profile.

More from Smart Management