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College Funding Is a Patchwork of Workarounds Barely Held Together by Twine and Duct Tape

It’s never been a secret that international students paying full price to attend California colleges has helped keep those colleges financially viable.  The combination of world-class universities combined with California’s reputation as an open and cosmopolitan destination has made it one of the world’s educational hubs.  

That may be changing, as international student registration in colleges has dropped significantly nationwide, and the golden state is no exception.

According to new reports, international student enrollment is down over 2% nationwide, with much more significant drops in some California colleges, like Santa Monica College, which has seen a 10% reduction.  

Many of those spots might not be filled with new students at all, as enrollment in college has dropped precipitously in many areas:  overall college attendance is down 3% from fall of 2019, and undergraduate enrollment is down 4%.  Community colleges are the hardest hit:  their overall enrollment dropped 9.4% nationwide. 

So far California is beating these averages, with many of its colleges reporting overall flat enrollment, and only community colleges reporting a consistent drop (strongly suggesting that the populations that need education the most are the ones being hurt the most by the pandemic).  

But even if the drop in international enrollment can be made up for by more domestic students - a big “if” - because international students pay full tuition, their loss represents a financial crisis for even the most successful California universities.

The heavy emphasis on international students was itself a response to declining federal and state support.  State support is likely only to be reduced during the economic crisis caused by covic-19, and now that fallback measure is itself falling away.  As LAist notes:  “The slowdown of international student enrollment comes at a time when US colleges and universities need these students' money and know-how the most.:

What happens next?  Is there a way to fix this?

To some degree the problem may sort itself out - if colleges can last that long.  The two largest factors in the drop-off of international students were the Trump administration’s ongoing hostility to international visitors of any kind, and (obviously) the coronavirus.  The former policies are now significantly likely to change, and there is increasing hope for a vaccine next year.  Both would be welcome developments.

Even if international enrollment bounces back, however, the current crisis clearly illustrates the degree to which education funding in America is a patchwork of workarounds barely held together by twine and duct tape.  This is going to be a problem for much more than just colleges:  as we’ve noted before, a crisis in education is a crisis for everything.  Getting people access to a quality education will be crucial to any economic recovery.  As a recent analysis by Business Insider found, there are lots of companies that will be hiring for good jobs in the near future - but all of those jobs will require specific certifications and skills.  Connecting people with those certifications, and then those companies, will require well funded and managed colleges and universities.

That will require new approaches and innovation - not more workarounds.  Calbright is one such effort at innovation, specifically designed for that mission.  There should be more.