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A program sends underrepresented students abroad, China zooms ahead of the U.S. in STEM PhDs, and a call for better data on postgraduate outcomes of international students.

‘Even More Vital’

I was talking with a group of study-abroad students when the peal of bells on the campus of Queen’s University Belfast temporarily drowned out our conversation.

As we paused while the bells chimed the hour, it occurred to me how familiar our conversation had been — talking about the ways in which exploring a new country had led to unexpected insights about themselves and their home — and yet how rare such interviews with students had become over the 18 months of the pandemic.

The students — Corinne Bobb-Semple of Pomona College, Nikita Joshi of the University of Missouri at Kansas City, and Cameron Lovings of Hampton University — were in Ireland and Northern Ireland for the summer as part of the Frederick Douglass Global Fellowship. The fellowship, named for the famous abolitionist, covers the full cost of a four-week study-abroad experience for diverse student leaders.

Education-abroad programs are only beginning to restart, and the students told me they hadn’t been sure that they would get to go overseas. Lovings was selected as part of the previous year’s fellowship class, which had its travel to Cape Town, South Africa, canceled because of the pandemic. Joshi had been anxious for the program to happen but said she didn’t believe it would until she was on the plane.

“Especially because of the pandemic, I’ve kind of been in a little bit of an echo chamber, just sort of stuck in my four walls, with my parents all the time,” she said. 

Because of Ireland’s Covid rules, students spent the first week taking online classes in Dublin, said Stacy Benjamin, director of the fellowship program. But after receiving negative PCR tests, they were able to meet in person and to travel around the country.

Still, the pandemic led to some precautions — when the group met the Taoiseach, Ireland’s prime minister, it was outdoors and they had to be physically distant.

The program is co-sponsored by the Council on International Educational Exchange and Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs, to mark the 175th anniversary of the meeting between Douglass and Irish reformer Daniel O’Connell in Dublin in 1845. It is focused on leadership, change, social justice, and cross-cultural understanding.

The global fellows program was started by CIEE to expand access to international education to underrepresented students. The share of such students studying abroad has increased over the past decade, from 20 percent of all students going overseas a decade ago to 31 percent in 2018-19, according to the Institute of International Education.

Still, education abroad remains far less diverse than U.S. higher education as a whole, and students of color can face hurdles in going overseas.

Lovings said he had wanted to study abroad, but he had limited options at Hampton, a HBCU. Both Joshi and Bobb-Semple said they hoped to study abroad again, next spring.

Bobb-Semple said being abroad felt “kind of like this dream” after Covid’s disruption but that she was relishing the chance to immerse herself in another country and culture. “The pandemic made study abroad seem even more vital,” she said.

The experience reminded Joshi “that there’s a world outside of my own,” she said. “There are other voices that need to be heard and other experiences that need to be depicted authentically and honestly.”

When I asked the group for advice for other students thinking about going abroad, Lovings urged them to “challenge themselves.” Go down a side street, visit a cafe, strike up a conversation with a local, he said. “There will always be that necessity to explore, to see things differently, to push yourself.”

Readers, I want to hear about how you’re handling study abroad this fall. Has the emergence of the delta variant caused you to rethink programs that were set to run this semester? What precautions are you taking if you are sending students abroad? Have travel restrictions and vaccine availability changed where your students are able to study? How is the pandemic affecting insurance and other costs? Do you have plans to pull your students from a country if case counts begin to rise?

As the fall semester draws near, tell me about your thinking and your planning. Your insights could be used in future reporting.

China Outpaces U.S. in STEM

China could graduate nearly twice as many STEM PhDs as the United States by 2025, according to new analysis from Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology. 

China overtook the U.S. in PhD production in 2007 and has steadily increased its lead ever since. Based on current enrollment projections, it could graduate more than 77,000 STEM PhDs in 2025 to the United States’ 40,000.

China’s advances reflect the investment of the Chinese government in its educational capacity, the CSET researchers note. The Chinese Ministry of Education roughly doubled its spending on higher education between 2012 and 2021. Hundreds of new doctoral programs were started.

And the number of students entering STEM doctoral programs at Chinese universities increased nearly 40 percent, from 59,670 in 2016 to 83,134 in 2019.

American doctoral programs did not see a similar enrollment spike.

Measuring degree production isn’t necessarily a sign of academic quality, but the researchers note that most of the recent and rapid growth has come at higher-quality Chinese universities.

One other finding worth noting: If you compare Chinese PhDs to domestic U.S. students only, China will award more than three times as many STEM doctorates as America by 2025. That reflects the U.S.’s strength in attracting global talent, but it also exposes its potential vulnerability if international students cannot, or chose not to, study here.

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International Students and Careers

Furthering their career prospects is a key reason many students study overseas, yet there’s little information about how international graduates of U.S. colleges actually fare in the job market or about the impact of their study experience on their career trajectories.

That’s a big takeaway of a report from the American Council on Education. Author Anna Esaki-Smith did a comprehensive survey of the available data and found that it came up lacking. Too often what information there is is incomplete or limited, Esaki-Smith told me. For example, colleges may track graduates’ first jobs but not their long-term career trajectories. She found that there’s a lot more detail about students in STEM graduate programs than those studying business or the humanities.

“It really is about the front end of the campus experience, not what happens afterward,” Esaki-Smith said of higher ed’s focus.

The lack of aggregate data about international graduates is notable compared to the attention paid to the outcomes of and return on investment for American students. Other countries also more carefully track their international graduates, Esaki-Smith said.

There are consequences to the dearth of data, which can be a critical tool in student recruitment. Colleges miss out on a resource for mentoring and global networking. And insight into international alumni outcomes can be a check for colleges, Esaki-Smith said — are their graduates getting the education they want, need, and expect?

After surveying what information exists, Esaki-Smith has strong ideas of what data there ought to be. Among her lengthy list of questions for future research:

  • Does study in the U.S. boost employability for international students? Against what control group?
  • Are domestic students’ experiences and/or job prospects improved by international students? 
  • What are the factors (personal and labor market) that determine whether international students will remain in the U.S. after they complete their studies or return home?

“It’s obvious the value that work has for international graduates,” Esaki-Smith said. 

Around the Globe

The Biden administration is developing plans to require all foreign travelers coming to the U.S. be vaccinated. It’s unclear how such a policy would apply to international students.

Members of Congress are calling for a probe of the China Initiative, which has investigated scientists and researchers, most of Chinese descent, for alleged espionage.

Students from Yemen will be eligible for special student relief beginning September 4.

Members of the editorial board of a scientific journal have resigned after it published papers that critics fear could be used for DNA profiling and persecution of ethnic minorities in China.

The University of Ghana has been slapped with a $165 million judgement in U.S. court for defaulting on a flagship development project backed by the U.S. government.

British universities are getting more applicants from China than from the European Union following Brexit.

Applications to the Turing Scheme, the UK’s new study-abroad program, exceeded expectations, but many of the top destinations are English-speaking.

The University of Hong Kong will ban student-union leaders from campus and from using all facilities and services.

Read this Twitter thread for why China’s crackdown on tutoring may affect international education.

India’s University Grants Commission has declared two dozen universities fake.

The State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs announced it would increase funding for the Mandela Washington Fellowship, which brings young African leaders to the U.S. for academic and leadership training

And finally…

Thanks, everyone, for the well wishes about the release of my new documentary. Fading Beacon, a collaboration between the Chronicle of Higher Education and APM Reports, looks at the recent declines in international students and explores the consequences — for ​​diplomacy, the economy, and the health of colleges and universities nationwide — if the United States loses its status as the world’s dominant destination.

Please check out our accompanying print article, with great insights from Rajika Bhandari, Chris Glass, Stephanie Kim, and many more! 

I also appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition to talk about the future of international students. 

You can listen to the program on your favorite podcast app in the Educate podcast feed or on your local public-radio station. Southern California folks, it will run Sunday, August 15, on KPCC, time TBD. I’ll post air dates for other stations on Twitter and LinkedIn as I learn them. And if you want to ask your local station to play Fading Beacon, I’d be grateful.

’Til next week —Karin

A freelance journalist and expert on global issues in higher ed, Karin has been writing for more than a decade about the changing relationship between American colleges and the world.