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July-August 2009

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Whither the Global Talent Pool?

On the surface, it looks like good news. Recent data on the enrollment of international students within American universities and colleges suggests that the US has recovered some of its historic strength as a magnet for foreign talent after several years of declining or stagnant growth. The Institute of International Education’s Open Doors report trumpets a new record of 623,805 foreign students enrolled here during the 2007-2008 academic year, up 7 percent from the previous year.

That students from throughout the world study in the US and that a sizable number of them then stay has been one of this country’s core strategies in building a highly skilled work force and will be a key to our future economic competitiveness. And as we are often reminded, the U.S. remains the number one international study destination for students from across the world—in particular from India, China, and Korea, the largest sources of international students globally.

In the long term, there is little doubt that US higher education will remain extremely attractive to foreign talent, due to the academic quality of a large number of its research universities; the legacy of a relatively open society for immigrants; and America’s still strong, if slightly tarnished, reputation as a land of opportunity. However, a closer look at shifting higher education markets, and at the possible impact upon those markets from the evolving global recession, provides a more nuanced perspective for policymakers.

In sum, there are already signs that the world market for student talent is shifting to the benefit of the US’s competitors, and in bad economic times we may find that shift accelerating. Currently the US remains a good performer in attracting the world’s growing cadre of international students to its graduate and professional schools, although it could do much better and its once dominant position is eroding. But it is an underperformer at the first-degree level when compared to its competitors. And perhaps most importantly, the U.S. lacks a strategic approach to capitalizing on the global pool of mobile students.

So what has changed? Two macro-trends help explain the shift: growing demand and increased competition.


John Aubrey Douglass is the senior research fellow of public policy and higher education at the Center for Studies in Higher Education (CSHE) at the University of California–Berkeley and co-editor of Globalization’s Muse: Universities and Higher Education Systems in a Changing World (Public Policy Press 2009). Richard Edelstein is a senior research associate at CSHE and managing director of Global Learning Networks. This article is part of a larger research project on how nation-states and their universities are approaching globalization.

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