One of America’s Most Vital Exports, Education, Never Goes Abroad, but It Still Faces Threats

It’s no mere coincidence that Jeffrey R. Brown, the dean of the Gies College of Business, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is also a scholar of risk management. At his first faculty meeting four years ago, Brown fretted that his school had become, like many American universities, overly dependent on a single source of money — roughly a fifth of tuition revenue came from Chinese students. “I saw our reliance on China as a risk,” says Brown, noting that 800 or so of the university’s nearly 5,800 Chinese students attend the business school. “At the time, I was concerned that China could pull the plug on students coming to America. But then the U.S. political landscape shifted, and we were vulnerable to changing visa and immigration policies here, too. Both were threats we could not control.”

Brown approached the problem as a risk manager, which meant doing what no school has been known to do before: buying insurance to protect against a sudden drop in Chinese enrollment. The three-year policy requires the university to pay $424,000 annually for up to $60 million in coverage. The insurer, Lloyd’s of London, will pay out a claim if a specific incident — a visa ban because of a government action, for example — causes the number of Chinese students in the colleges of business and engineering to decline by 18.5 percent over a 12-month period. The political risks have only grown since the policy went into effect. The trade war with China, visa restrictions and the anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from the White House are making it more complicated for international students to come to America. “It’s a tough environment right now,” Brown says. But the insurance gives him peace of mind. The school continues to invest in China, he says, but now “with the confidence that we are not doubling down on risk.”

Over the past decade, the explosion in the number of international students has turned education, almost by stealth, into one of the most vital American exports. The idea that a student taking classes in Iowa City or Ann Arbor can be counted as an export might seem strange. In economic terms, however, the student’s situation is not so different from, say, a Japanese company buying American soybeans: Foreign money flows into the United States from abroad — except that in this case, the product doesn’t leave the country.

Nearly 1.1 million international students attended American colleges and universities in 2017. They generated $42.4 billion in export revenue, more than double the amount eight years ago, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. (Because far fewer Americans study abroad, the United States ran a $34.2 billion surplus in education in 2017.) Nafsa, a nonprofit group that supports international education, estimates that students from abroad created or sustained more than 455,000 jobs in the United States, almost nine times the number of American coal miners. The value of education is almost double the revenue from America’s top agricultural export in 2017, soybeans ($21.6 billion). When other student spending is factored in — food, cars, clothes — education’s total export value rivals that of pharmaceuticals ($51 billion) and automobiles ($53 billion). “In the public at large, there’s little awareness that higher education is one of America’s biggest exports,” says Rajika Bhandari, senior adviser for research and strategy at the Institute of International Education. “Or that this export drives American competitiveness.”

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