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Recruit more international students to Iowa

Robert Anderson, Daryl Beall and Willard Jenkins

Des Moines Register

December 26, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by the Des Moines Register, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Des Moines Register.]

Few people would guess that Iowa ranks ahead of California in the number of international students relative to our population, or that we are first in the Midwest and sixth in the nation in that regard. Only Massachusetts, Hawaii, New York, Rhode Island and Delaware have more international students per capita than Iowa.

What does it matter? It might help to translate the statistics into business terms: If we were trying to attract a new company with more than 7,000 employees who would directly contribute more than $144 million to Iowa's economy, the state government and media would be shouting about the opportunity. We already have this "company" in our state, but if we fail to expand our efforts to attract international students, Iowa risks losing market share.

And we risk other things as well. International students help Iowa students learn more about the world. Many international students and scholars return home to become leaders in government, business and education, with the power to decide where in the world to invest financial and human resources. A significant number of international students remain in Iowa to fill needed employment niches in higher education and in Iowa companies.

The long-term potential goes far beyond the $144 million per year. Iowa needs more young people with great minds, and international students and scholars are among the best in the world.

State government, higher education and the business community should work to significantly increase the number of international students and scholars. Here are some places to begin:

1. A group of Iowa college and university admissions representatives have created Promoting Iowa Education Internationally. For the first time, Iowa schools have collaborated to have educational "trade" missions to other countries, to visit embassies in Washington, D.C., and to invite counselors from international high schools to Iowa. PIE needs the financial support of college and university presidents and state government.

2. Iowa Sister State and Sister City organizations and Iowa's international businesses should be urged to tell the story of Iowa higher education when they travel or have international guests. We should provide a limited number of scholarships to students in states where we have those international relationships.

3. We should push our leaders in Washington to streamline our visa processes for business and education. It is ironic that we spend so much money on bureaucratic means to keep business leaders and scholars out of our country, while thousands cross our border illegally every day. Where is the long-term security in that?

4. Many families around the world are willing to make a huge investment in their children's education, but few can come up with the tens of thousands of dollars of cash guarantee required to enter the United States for higher education. Iowa should be the first state to explore some form of loan guarantee that can ease the immediate burden. That would be a great recruiting tool.

5. Current international students can become Iowa's best advocates, but only if we do more to help them meet Iowans and learn about the state. We also need to do more to help keep the connections with our top international alumni. An example would be to provide micro-grants to international students from developing countries to manage small development projects when they return home. Foundations might fund such a program.

6. Most important, we should invest more in higher education to keep tuitions reasonable for everyone and to provide more scholarships for Iowans who need help.

Iowans benefit greatly from the diversity, intellectual capital and dollars that international students and scholars bring to our state. Iowa has a rich resource of quality higher education in every part of the state. We should increase the number of international students and scholars studying in Iowa by at least 50 percent over the next five years.

ROBERT ANDERSON is president of Iowa Resource for International Service and a former lieutenant governor of Iowa. Sen. DARYL BEALL is co-chair of the Iowa Senate International Affairs Committee. Rep. WILLARD JENKINS is chair of the Iowa House International Affairs Committee.