University Internationalization: A Myth in American Higher Education

Mariana Ashley is a freelance writer who particularly enjoys writing about online colleges. She loves receiving reader feedback, which can be directed to mariana.ashley031

As the world weathers the regressing economic storm, we here in the United States are finally beginning to understand what it means to feel that our status as the unquestionable leader in economic and social power has become precarious. There’s been much talk about China, and subsequently about competition on the international scene. As America’s educational system, even its much-lauded higher education system, continues to slip according to various metrics, there has been a renewed interest in internationalization in the past few decades. At the same time, this interest is skin-deep, as the cutting of foreign language programs and the deceptive cash cow that has become the study abroad industry both illustrate.

While there is no doubt that many US universities offer some of the best facilities for both students and researchers, the cost of a higher education here has risen to unprecedented levels. The cutting of foreign language programs across the American higher education spectrum and the increased difficulty of international students to attend school here and stay afterwards to apply their skills proves America’s increased march toward national insularity.

The prevalence of study abroad programs and their popularity among students would suggest that there is a sincere interest within both schools and students to live and study in a different country, among different people, and to learn a different culture and its attendant customs. However, the slew of scandals that many study abroad providers have undergone in the past few years demonstrates that, if anything, the pervasive “study abroad” route that many American undergraduates take is a manufactured experience that parades itself as internationalization.

An Inside Higher Ed article that reported on a meeting earlier this year of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, whose theme was “Global Positioning”, noted the often shallow nature of globalizing gestures made by American universities.

 “You can be located bodily in another country and not really be there,” said Natalie Gummer, associate professor of religious studies at Beloit College. Too many students create ‘American student culture bubbles’ abroad and don’t really connect with the countries where they are studying.”

Not only are study abroad or exchange programs in America breeding grounds for an expatriate-like insulation, they often also are deemed by many American students as a vacation from school, one in which the most common activity is binge drinking. In fact, the farce that has become most study abroad and exchange programs in America was parodied perfectly on the popular blog “Stuff White People Like”, which satirizes a cross-section of Americans that are mostly white and upper or upper-middle class.

What then, would be the response to this distinctly American version of internationalization of universities? How do we endeavor for a more sincere effort at granting American university students a more authentic, more rigorous international experience?

One answer is to make it easier for American students to pursue a full degree in another country. While many universities abroad are very affordable for its own citizens, they are beyond the financial grasp of most American students since fees for international students are substantially higher. For American students whose family income is average, living and studying abroad is simply too expensive to even consider. European schools in particular are not usually financially feasible unless the federal government covers the cost in the form of financial aid and student loans. However, federal financial aid restrictions imposed by the U.S. government for students who want to receive a full education abroad are plentiful, as outlined by Sallie Mae, the publically trading U.S. corporation that services federal and private student loans. Many foreign universities do not enable American students to qualify for aid, especially institutions in non-English speaking countries.

Perhaps the most important way for Americans universities to push for a more effective internationalization of its institutions is to stop framing every question of international relations as one of competition. Although it is of course the modern world’s heritage to feel a certain pride in one’s country, as the world inches closer to becoming a “global village”, especially with the advent of an advanced Internet, we simply cannot afford this mindset anymore.

Perhaps another Inside Higher Ed article put it best when covering an Association of International Educators conference. The article paraphrased Jane Knight, a conference attendee and professor of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto:

“Knight proposed a deeper discussion about the values underlying internationalization of higher education, which she suggested have shifted over the years. These shifts, she said, have been from cooperation to competition, mutual benefit to self-interest, exchange and partnership to commercial trade and activity, and, as illustrated by the rise in influence of global rankings, from capacity-building to status- or prestige-building. ”

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