Global Connections: The future of international ed at community colleges


While states and local communities are in the midst of responding to the coronavirus outbreak, many of our nation’s leaders are asking what the impact on international education will be and what will it look like moving forward.

The importance of international education has been increasingly acknowledged in recent years because, as highlighted in the American Association of Community Colleges’ (AACC) “The Importance of Global Education” (2020), it is a vital key to ensure a civil society in a nation of rapidly changing demographics, to transform everyday Americans into competent global citizens who can successfully navigate an increasingly interconnected world, and to provide American businesses with a globally competent — as well as globally competitive — workforce that can ensure the nation’s future economic prosperity.

During this present crisis, international educators were among the first in the nation to respond to the initial outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. As the largest and most diverse sector of U.S. higher education, community colleges felt the most immediate impact.

Suddenly, large numbers of international students at community colleges could not longer return to their home countries. Airlines began eliminating international routes and, in some instances, the students’ home countries were recommending that they not return until the threat was over. Notably, the largest percentage of international students seeking an undergraduate education in the U.S. are enrolled at community colleges. (Nearly 19 percent are from China, where the virus was first reported. More than 45 percent come from the southeast Asia region.) 

At the same time, some international students were encountering difficulties entering the U.S. to begin or return to their studies at community colleges. Many were concerned about violating their student visa status as community colleges made the decision to transition to remote learning from in-person classes in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Additional student visa concerns arose as U.S. businesses began to close and lay off workers, abruptly eliminating so-called Optional Practical Training (OPT) opportunities. (OPT is temporary employment that is directly related to an F-1 student’s major area of study.)

The economic effect

As the predicament of international students grew, government officials also became increasingly concerned because, as noted in NAFSA: Association of Internation Educators’ Economic Value Tool, international students at community colleges in 2019 contributed $2.6 billion to the U.S. economy and supported nearly 14,000 U.S. jobs. Community colleges across the nation quickly mobilized to provide the heightened mental, financial and logistical support international students needed.

Taken in context, these events were happening in the wake of two consecutive years of declining international student enrollments. According to the Institute of International Education’s “2019 Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange,” international student enrollments at community colleges declined more than 8 percent during the 2018-2019 academic year alone — the largest decline for any U.S. higher education sector. The total number of international students at community colleges is about 86,350.

It is important to note that international student enrollment is one of the primary means by which community colleges internationalize their campuses and provide some level of global competence to their otherwise place-bound students. The 2019 enrollment decline also translated into a $100 million loss to the U.S. economy compared to the previous academic year and the loss of more than 1,200 U.S. jobs. 

Hurting faculty programs, too

At the start of 2020, community college officials were already expecting another difficult year of declining international student enrollment. But the added impact of the coronavirus foreshadowed a more precarious future for international student numbers at community colleges and a much larger loss to the U.S. economy.

The coronavirus outbreak has also severely impacted broader internationalization efforts at community colleges. Valuable faculty development programs were put on hold, including the U.S. Fulbright Program. In addition, applications plummeted for other professional development programs, such as the Council of American Overseas Research Centers’ international seminars for community college faculty.

During the initial stages of the viral outbreak, community colleges began canceling their planned student study abroad trips and faculty international travel. Increasingly, community college faculty and students who were already studying abroad were asked to return home. As the viral outbreak developed into a pandemic, community colleges eventually canceled all travel, domestic and international, and immediately recalled all their faculty and students who were abroad on college programs.

As a result, some community college officials became especially concerned that small study abroad providers, on whom they relied for providing low-cost, boutique programs tailored specifically for community college students, would not survive their financial losses.

Increases in study abroad

In contrast to the sector’s international student enrollment declines, community college student participation in study abroad programs had been remarkably increasing over the last few years thanks to favorable changes in U.S. government programs, such as the Gilman Scholarship, and due to significant foreign outreach, including the French government through its Community College in France Program. In fact, community college study abroad increased nearly 4.5 percent during the 2017-2018 academic year, to more than 7,400 students, according to the 2019 Open Doors report. 

In addition, based on a survey encompassing all of U.S. higher education, the American Council on Education’s “Mapping Internationalization on U.S. Campuses” (2017) reported that the largest increase in activities to internationalize the curriculum occurred at community colleges. Such internationalization activities included professional development workshops for community college faculty and administrators, and collaboration with Title VI National Resource Centers, which are centers of excellence for the study of international languages, business and culture.

Learning lessons

Although the coronavirus pandemic has greatly affected community college international education programs, many remain optimistic about the future of such programs. Several community college leaders are quick to acknowledge that the pandemic itself is a lesson in how closely we are connected, beyond economics, to each other around the world — that we all face similar challenges and often must respectfully work together across national boundaries to resolve them. Accordingly, they believe that international education remains vital to humanity’s future.

As a result of the pandemic, many education leaders and other stakeholders believe that education, in general, and especially international education, has changed forever. Some innovative and promising programs that are already in practice at community colleges may provide a glimpse into that future. 

A few possible examples are contained in the AACC “Case Studies in Global Education” and in previous Global Connections articles in Community College Daily. One idea is to more broadly use virtual exchanges to give students international experiences through curriculum and co-curriculum, which is developed in collaboration with international partners.

In its implementation, Tompkins Cortland Community College (TC3) through its Global Connections initiative created a dual-degree program that allows international students to study in their home countries, with the option to complete their programs on TC3’s campus in rural upstate New York. Using a similar platform, Genesee Community College (another small college in upstate New York) provides programs that are simultaneously in-person and online. Classes are accessible using any smart mobile device and each class is recorded to provide 24/7 access. 

Another notable community college innovation leverages international partnerships to provide regionally accredited transnational education, as well as to engage in a host of other mutually beneficial international educational activities. Through the Broward College (Florida) global network of International Centers, thousands of international students can obtain a Broward associate degree without leaving their home countries. Upon degree completion, students can go on to obtain a baccalaureate at a Broward campus in Florida or enroll at one of Broward’s domestic or international transfer partners around the world. 

Broward also leverages its global network to provide a variety of faculty international professional development experiences, academic exchanges, and study abroad opportunities.

Accordingly, many community college leaders believe that, in its best light, the pandemic has provided the community college sector with an opportunity to continue to develop much-needed innovation, as well as a renewed impetus to respond with increased urgency to correct the many inequities within our own communities and around the world.

About the Author

Wayne Wheeler
is director of international programs and services at the American Association of Community Colleges.