American Sociological Association

ASA Footnotes

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
May/June 2020

International Education and the COVID-19 Crisis

Esther D. Brimmer, Executive Director and CEO, NAFSA: Association of International Educators

Higher education has always benefited from great minds from many lands. From the ancient world to universities in Fez, Bologna, and Oxford, there have been international components to education before there were modern nations. One of the hallmarks of the modern world is the exchange of students and scholars. Currently more than five million students per year study outside their home countries, but there is great concern for the future as the worldwide COVID-19 crisis is having a dramatic impact on international education.

Founded in 1948, NAFSA: Association of International Educators, is the largest nonprofit association dedicated to international education and exchange. NAFSA is working with some of the most resilient and innovative professionals around the world to rebuild the field and plan for the future. 

While it will be years before we know the full effect of the current crisis on the profession of international education, some elements are already evident. In this article, I will reflect upon some of the aspects of the profession significantly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic which include: education abroad, global learning, technology, access, and the broad impact of international students and scholars curtailing visits to the United States. 

One of the most visible and immediate impacts of this pandemic is on the U.S.-based education abroad field. Concerned about their well-being as the novel coronavirus began to spread in early 2020, most U.S. colleges and universities recalled students rapidly. Travel restrictions imposed by many countries meant that administrators had to work quickly to help students return. Those with in-depth knowledge of international education, well-designed risk management plans and expert administrators to implement them, tended to have smoother responses to this unprecedented situation. 

The ongoing crisis has also raised questions about the future for many in the education abroad field, such as whether to conduct their summer and fall programs. Considerably fewer students are expected to travel abroad this year, which will create financial hardship for some offices, institutions, and companies, many of which are funded by the fees paid by participants.

International education involves global learning in addition to travel. For the past two decades, many institutions have worked to internationalize their campuses, integrating an international, intercultural, or global dimension into the purpose, functions, and delivery of higher education. With fewer students able to travel, many institutions may look to international educators for ways to incorporate global learning into their curricula for virtual and in-person experiences.

Online teaching permeates education now, and international educators are exploring how technology will affect the field. Some institutions may promote virtual international experiences while actual international travel is less possible. In some cases, international partners can use technology to connect professors and students in different countries to pursue shared class programs. 

But not all institutions have well-connected technology systems, and not all students have equal access. Another consequence of this pandemic is the amplification of inequalities. Campus closures represent eviction notices and pink slips for students dependent on university services and employment. While faculty are encouraged to create enhanced, synchronous learning outcomes, many American students do not have access to necessary technology and connections.  International students who were studying in the U.S. and were sent home may also have difficulty accessing online classes offered in a distant time zone. Some international educators are also face some of these challenges in their own lives. 

Finally, international educators are concerned about the impact of the global pandemic on the flow of students and scholars around the world. The United States benefits greatly from international education. When the crisis broke, over one million international students were studying in the country, making intellectual and cultural contributions. In the 2018-2019 academic year, they contributed over $41 billion to the U.S. economy and supported 458,000 jobs.

Despite all of the potential negative impacts this global crisis can have on international education, international educators remain resilient. They recognize that international education is an integral part of the solution to advancing human well-being, peace, and the resolution of global problems. International education creates the habits of cooperation that underpin the scientific research that seeks the treatments and vaccines needed to fight disease. International educators also know that their work builds the empathy that will help us survive the onslaught of COVID-19 and build back our societies on better terms.