Career Tips for International Students

Navigating the Demographic Cliff

Join us as we delve into strategies to combat the demographic cliff in higher education with special guest Esther Benjamin, CEO of World Education Services (WES). 🌍💼

Listen in as we explore insights for international students and institutions, discuss employability, affordability, and advocacy, and hear Esther’s personal journey as an international student turned global executive. Don’t miss this insightful discussion on the future of international education!

Episode Transcript:

[00:00:00] Coach Kwan: Hello, everyone. Welcome to season 3, episode 4 of the career guide for international students podcast brought to you by ICAway.

[00:00:09] Coach Kwan: I’m your host, Kwan Segal.

[00:00:12] Coach Kwan: Join us as we explore insights from international education leaders and professionals advocating for international student careers. And in today’s episode, we will delve into strategies to combat the demographic cliff, which refers to the decline in the college age population beginning in 2025. I am so thrilled to have a very special guest with us today,

[00:00:39] Coach Kwan: Esther Benjamin, the CEO and executive director of World Education Services, or

[00:00:45] Coach Kwan: as we know, WES

[00:00:47] Coach Kwan: Esther brings 30 years of experience as a global executive across various sectors, including public, private, and civil society. Most importantly, Esther [00:01:00] was once an international student as well.

[00:01:03] Coach Kwan: Esther, thank you so much for joining us today. Where are you calling from?

[00:01:07] Esther Benjamin: Thank you so much for having me, Kwan. I am calling in from my home city of New York City.

[00:01:15] Coach Kwan: Oh, my favorite city. Hope the weather in spring is pleasant right now in New York.

[00:01:21] Esther Benjamin: You know, it’s It’s still a little bit chillier than I would hope for at this time of year, but I think is spring is very near.

[00:01:30] Coach Kwan: I know, same here in Chicago. We have some rains, you know, some cold wind and yeah, but the tulips are beautiful.

[00:01:39] Esther Benjamin: Oh, that’s great. Chicago’s one of my favorite cities. I went to high school and college in Chicago and a very dear city for

[00:01:50] Coach Kwan: Oh, I love that. Now, when you mentioned about your college years, we know that you were once an international student. Could you please share a little bit of your [00:02:00] journey as an international student and today as the leader of the international education field?

[00:02:07] Esther Benjamin: Yeah, it’s a deeply personal thing for me. And my journey goes way back because I was actually a F2 before I became an F1. So in 1976, my father came to the United States to pursue his master’s degree in Austin, Texas. So I was an F2 at that time as a dependent.

[00:02:31] Esther Benjamin: And and then we went back. to Sri Lanka, which is my country of birth.

[00:02:37] Esther Benjamin: And we came back again in 1982 when my father came here to pursue his Ph. D. Studies.

[00:02:47] Esther Benjamin: And I was an F2 again. And then in 86 my father returned back to Sri Lanka. My mom and my sister and I stayed here. I graduated high school and [00:03:00] became an international student in 1986. I graduated from college in 1990 and I continued as an F1 student at American University pursuing my graduate studies, my master’s program.

[00:03:17] Esther Benjamin: And then two years later, I started yet another master’s. Program and, and remained an F2 student. And it wasn’t until 1998 that I would become a U.S. citizen. So that journey is long starting with my father’s journey and then mine.

[00:03:37] Coach Kwan: Wow, incredible. You have seen it all, right? From, you know, the past years through so many leaders of the United States and the changes of international education field and your father seems to be like an inspiration for you to be here as an international student.

[00:03:58] Esther Benjamin: Absolutely. That [00:04:00] value of education, wherever it is earned it is, the , most important aspect of our journeys, right? Being able to have that educational experience and qualification that propels us in our careers.

[00:04:16] Coach Kwan: That’s really wonderful story. Let us shift to the topic that we are here. You know, to listen to your advice today about demographic cliff for international education, especially in higher education, we have heard a lot about the projected decline in the number of college-age students in the United States or demographic cliff, and this decline is anticipated to pose very challenging moment for higher education institutions, including decreased enrollment numbers and potential revenue implications. My question to you is, how can the international student [00:05:00] population contribute to solving this problem in U.S. higher education?

[00:05:09] Esther Benjamin: Such an important question and topic. I actually serve on the board of trustees of my undergraduate institution and for many years on the advisory board of my graduate institution, and this demographic cliff has been a topic of conversation for a long time and becoming an even more Important conversation because it is upon us and the consensus view is that America will hit a peak of about 3.5 million high school graduates in 2025. That will be the peak of three and a half million high school graduates. And after 2025, the college [00:06:00] age population is expected to shrink. And that decline is expected. From 2025 over the next 5 to 10 years, and the decline could be as great as 15 percentage points, and this demographic cliff is attributed to the declining birth rates that followed the 2008 financial crisis.

[00:06:30] Esther Benjamin: So, as you can imagine, every college in the United States and really around the world is thinking about and planning for a decline in enrollments and how that could potentially be addressed. And international students can play a very important role. part in addressing this gap. And as you know better than anyone, Kwan in the [00:07:00] United States, we have about a million international students.

[00:07:04] Esther Benjamin: And that is only about 6 percent of university students in the country. In countries like Canada and UK and Australia the percentage of international students as a part of overall enrollment is anywhere from 20 to 25 percent. In the U.S., it’s only 6 percent. So when you’re concerned about a demographic cliff the possibility of admitting More international students and welcoming them to the United States is an important option.

[00:07:41] Esther Benjamin: And we actually are a part of a coalition in the U.S. Called the U.S. for success coalition, which I can talk about later. And it is focused on opportunities and success for international students in the U.S. And and we’re very much focused [00:08:00] on this and as you know.

[00:08:02] Esther Benjamin: international students contribute about 40 billion to the U.S. Economy when they come into the country, and this number has only been increasing. And we also note that the fact that international students are here creates hundreds of thousands of jobs on behalf of the U.S. Economy. college and university campuses and in communities near educational institutions.

[00:08:31] Esther Benjamin: The economic contribution is important, but even more important than that, international students bring a diversity and richness to any college or university campus. And, and that there’s, there’s no price, there’s no value, there’s no dollar amount. That you can put on that rich diversity and perspective that they bring to the, the campus, to the classroom, [00:09:00] and to the communities.

[00:09:01] Coach Kwan: That’s so beautifully put. And you are a great example of the international students that come to America and build the enterprise that all not just generating revenue to the country, but also lots of impacts, positive impacts to society as well.

[00:09:21] Coach Kwan: Yeah, and I’m, I’m thrilled to see those statistics, those numbers that you just shared with us is the evidence that we still have rooms to bring more international students to our country.

[00:09:34] Esther Benjamin: Yeah. And Kwan, I think about this a lot and I said that in the US it’s only 6% of university students. But when you look around the world, and there are 250 million individuals who are enrolled in colleges and universities worldwide, including all countries. And when you look at international students as a, as a [00:10:00] proportion of.

[00:10:02] Esther Benjamin: University students worldwide is even less. It’s about 3%. And I’m really focused on this. I think there should be way more, many more international students around the world. What if we went from 3 percent around the world to 25%? And I, I think about expanding international education. And I think about You know, if there were 25 percent of university students were studying in a country other than their own, how much richer would our world be?

[00:10:42] Esther Benjamin: We would be a more globally minded workforce around the world. We would be a more globally minded world. Set of leaders leading and driving the world forward. So I think about [00:11:00] more international students in the U.S., but I also think about the need for more people to study outside of their home countries, not just in the top destinations, but all over the world.

[00:11:14] Esther Benjamin: You know, wouldn’t it be richer if more African students are in North America, in South America, on their own continent? So I’m an advocate for more international students in the U.S. And really all over the world to increase the richness of our global workforce and also the global mindedness of people who will lead the world in the future.

[00:11:43] Coach Kwan: It’s going to be such a beautiful world rich that richness is so important. I’m 100 percent with you on that. Yes, we need diversity, right with the hours, the society, we cannot just leave our world with just one [00:12:00] aspect of thinking

[00:12:03] Esther Benjamin: Yeah, you look at the problems that our world faces today, and I dream of a world that my children will be leading in. A world where that global mindset is much more common.

[00:12:18] Coach Kwan: 100 percent with you on that. Now let us geared toward to how can we help higher education solve this problem, possibly some strategies that U.S. Institutions can adopt to position themselves as top choices for international students. What are your thoughts on that? These

[00:12:40] Esther Benjamin: Yeah, very true. There are many things that U.S. Institutions can think about to be more attractive to international students, and, and I’ll just focus on three things employability and affordability and also advocacy. In terms of employability, [00:13:00] students are more focused than ever on employment outcomes, and that includes employment outcomes, possibly in the country where they are studying, and it’s also employability if they plan to return to their countries and universities need to have a clear path on.

[00:13:23] Esther Benjamin: What can be offered through the programs they’re enrolled in through OPT and CPT. And I know we’ll talk about it more, but exactly how should an international student think about their employment options if they are to enroll in a particular institution and an institution needs to be clear about that for them.

[00:13:49] Esther Benjamin: International students, which is different from thinking about employability for a domestic student. Second is affordability. [00:14:00] It is on every Individuals mind every family’s parents mind. I have had one child graduate from college and graduate school and another child who’s currently a third year student in university and who doesn’t think about affordability and access and ac or the, the cost across institutions has dramatically increased.

[00:14:30] Esther Benjamin: So if you look at the numbers, the cost of college has increased more than 135% between 1963 and 2021 in the United States. That is so significant. So this is on the mind of every student, and it’s on the mind of every internationals. I am pleased to say that there are more options today than 10, 15 years ago, but it’s [00:15:00] still insufficient.

[00:15:01] Esther Benjamin: I look at companies that have emerged over the past decade and a half. And, and those include companies like Empower. It includes companies like Prodigy Finance in in Mexico, where I Spoke at a conference recently. There’s a company called Laudex. There’s a company in Brazil called Privilair.

[00:15:27] Esther Benjamin: There’s a company called Tata, which is a loan servicing company. So there are emerging financial tech companies, ed tech companies, loan servicing companies that are emerging. And And some are emerging in a way where the financing is done in the home market and the students could be studying in top destination markets.

[00:15:59] Esther Benjamin: So [00:16:00] there are more and more options and institutions need to understand all of the different tools available today that may not have been available before for financing an international student’s education. So you need to be very clear about that conversation with an international student versus a domestic student.

[00:16:24] Esther Benjamin: Student and it’s a different conversation. And the last piece is I mentioned the U.S. For success coalition, which is focused on international students in the United States and and I’m hoping that more colleges and universities will join this coalition and that will be a strong signal to students and families that this is an institution that is committed To welcoming international students and committed to the success of [00:17:00] international students.

[00:17:00] Esther Benjamin: So these are just three points that I will mention today.

[00:17:05] Coach Kwan: are great resources for institutions to start preparing themselves to become top choices for international students. It’s about the holistic support from the

[00:17:16] Coach Kwan: arrival to the departure.

[00:17:20] Esther Benjamin: Absolutely.

[00:17:22] Coach Kwan: I love it. And I think you have already touched this point, but maybe we can, you know, summarize this a little bit from your perspective. What factors do international students prioritize when selecting a U.S. Institution?

[00:17:40] Esther Benjamin: You know, I used to be CEO of an academic institution in South Africa and, you know, have had exposure to higher education issues around the world. And I find students their parents, and extended families who are often involved in the [00:18:00] financing of education. I find all of them to be incredibly discerning customers when it comes to that decision on where they are going to study.

[00:18:11] Esther Benjamin: And we’ve talked about affordability and employability, so I’ll mention some other consideration for students and families. Number one is a strong academic reputation, and this is a top priority for most international students. There’s been no official survey on this but my sense is that the academic reputation is perhaps It’s even more important for an international student.

[00:18:45] Esther Benjamin: If you’re going to leave your country, go far from home, go far from your support network, it better be worth it and it better come with a strong academic reputation with the institution [00:19:00] you’re considering. International students also consider livability. they consider whether the location is attractive.

[00:19:10] Esther Benjamin: And I think there are some who will be predisposed to be in an urban environment and others who may not want to be in New York City and be in a second tier city. So I think people are considering livability in different kinds of ways. Students are also coming without. A car or a means of transport.

[00:19:35] Esther Benjamin: So public transportation is part of the livability consideration. And World Education Services works in the U.S. And in Canada. In Canada, in particular, there’s a housing plan. crisis around affordable housing. So students are also thinking about is there adequate [00:20:00] housing that is available, that is affordable within my, my budget.

[00:20:05] Esther Benjamin: And those are all livability factors that individuals are considering. And then safety is so important. When there is a incident a crime that could impact an international student. We will immediately see at WES a decline for a short period, at least of international student interest in the country.

[00:20:34] Esther Benjamin: Safety is a huge factor and An important factor for the individuals and families and we see an impact and a decline when there are incidents of, of grave concern.

[00:20:49] Coach Kwan: Right. Those are so important factors. I get this question all the time from the family members back in Thailand about the situation in Chicago. [00:21:00] You know, they are, they have been so worried about my safety nets. But. Like, everything is okay, but that is the image that U.S. Institutions and the city where the institutions are in need to collaborate and work together to create that safetiness.

[00:21:18] Coach Kwan: The image of being a safe place for international students is so important.

[00:21:24] Esther Benjamin: Absolutely.

[00:21:25] Coach Kwan: Thank you for summarizing all of this so well. Since you were once an international student, can you please give them some advice for students who are seeking employment in the United States?

[00:21:41] Esther Benjamin: Yeah. You know, I think it’s important to understand this even before you arrive in the United States. And it’s important to understand what is Available or what is open under U.S. Law. And it’s good to understand this [00:22:00] before arriving. And So these are terms that have become very familiar to international students, and it’s important to understand if you’re going to be able to have CPT, which is Curricular practical training, which is the opportunity to take on an internship or a work study or a co op opportunity while you’re studying.

[00:22:31] Esther Benjamin: So it’s important for the student to ask the institution, will I have CPT? Will I be able to do an internship? I recently ran into an international student and they’re studying at an institution in Canada and this institution for an engineering program requires six internships. So this is the competition, right?

[00:22:59] Esther Benjamin: These are [00:23:00] graduates who are coming into the workforce. With up to six internships that they may have done. So it’s important that international students are competitive. We, we need to make sure our international students have had enough internships and Co ops that when they enter the workforce, they’re competitive with their with their peers who are not international students.

[00:23:29] Esther Benjamin: So understand what your CPT opportunities will be and also understand what your. OPT opportunities will be, and that’s Optional Practical Training. And this can be up to a year, up to 12 months for most graduates, but find out what your time frame is for OPT. Now, if you are a STEM graduate, your OPT looks different.

[00:23:59] Esther Benjamin: So, [00:24:00] you graduate with a IT degree or an engineering science degree, your OPT is 24 months, giving you up to 36 months total, in total, after you graduate. So, just be aware of that. Be very discerning, to use that word again, about exactly what your opportunities will be. And you know, depending on the program you’re enrolling in, this is different.

[00:24:30] Esther Benjamin: So, please make clear what you’re walking into.

[00:24:35] Coach Kwan: So important. And all of these nuances that, you know, international students will experience, work authorization, looking for employment, stay competitive in the market. Now, what advice do you have for the advisors who need to support them?

[00:24:55] Esther Benjamin: Yeah I fortunately went to a graduate school in [00:25:00] particular that had very good advising for international students. I went to American University in Washington, D.C., and the fact that I could speak with international student advisors, the fact that I had an international student office, In fact, uh, Fanta Aw, who is now the CEO of NAFSA, when I was a graduate student and she was a graduate student, Fanta worked at the International Students Office.

[00:25:34] Esther Benjamin: The fact that we had this fantastic International Student Office was a godsend. And I went there often and was supported by professionals who were dedicated to my success. I also could go to the career office and have someone advise me from my perspective as an [00:26:00] international student.

[00:26:00] Esther Benjamin: So I think it’s really important that an institution, if it wants to position itself to attract more international enrollments, that you have the infrastructure, not just in one international student office, but really built throughout the institution to serve this segment of your student population.

[00:26:26] Esther Benjamin: I think you’ve got to get that right. And the institutions that do well with international student enrollment are those that embedded across the institution. I think about NYU just down the street, which attracts some of the largest numbers of international students. Students and I’m thinking about the leader there who leads the efforts for international admissions that university is set up to really welcome and ensure the success of many.

[00:26:59] Esther Benjamin: Not [00:27:00] every college will be able to do it in the same way. There’s gotta be a, a holistic approach to supporting the international student.

[00:27:11] Coach Kwan: Such a great example. Thank you for sharing. Now we are here at the end of the podcast interview today. We would love to hear some updates or news that you want to share with us, anything new with Wes or yourself that you you’d like to share with our community.

[00:27:27] Esther Benjamin: Well, thank you for that questions of every year is an exciting year. It was I work with 400 remarkable colleagues who are so so hardworking and committed and just make coming to work virtually or in person a joy. But this year is extra special for us. We’re celebrating our 50th anniversary, and that will culminate in a wonderful event in October [00:28:00] and Can you imagine the founding of this institution in 1974 when I was only five years old and I get to be a part of this organization together with an incredible set of colleagues and over these 50 years and all the people that have who came before me at the organization, help build world education services, but they also help build the field of international.

[00:28:31] Esther Benjamin: qualification recognition. In 1974, universities in the United States didn’t know how to read a transcript from foreign universities. So people who are coming from your country, from Thailand, who would come here with a bachelor’s degree, Probably we’re told your bachelor’s degree is not a bachelor’s degree here.

[00:28:57] Esther Benjamin: So go do two more [00:29:00] years and then we’ll recognize your Thai degree as a BA at that point and then you can go to graduate school. It’s almost like that problem to a To some extent has been solved. So we’re excited that over 50 years we have served almost 4 million individuals who’ve come to us with academic credentials from All over the world.

[00:29:26] Esther Benjamin: 200 plus countries and territories. They’ve brought us hundreds of thousands of qualifications every year. Now they bring us about 600, 000 credentials a year that we look at, and they’re bringing us credentials from well over 60, 000 institutions around the world, and the reports and the evaluations we do are taken then to colleges and universities and employers [00:30:00] and licensing bodies and immigration bodies and government and So I’m really proud of the work of the organization over many years.

[00:30:11] Esther Benjamin: What has happened over the past 10 years is that we have evolved as a social enterprise, and we have now added philanthropic activities, which includes grant making and impact investing. We have added policy and advocacy initiatives. We’ve also added Programmatic activities, and all of these activities outside of credential evaluation are also dedicated and focused on those we serve.

[00:30:46] Esther Benjamin: So all of these activities are focused on international students, immigrants, refugees, displaced people, and ensuring that they, once they are in North [00:31:00] America, that they are included. In education, employability, and that they also experience social inclusion in the communities that they settle in, that they, you know, Face welcoming communities that involved them and integrate them into the community.

[00:31:21] Esther Benjamin: So it’s a, it’s a proud 50 year history of not just evaluating credentials, which has been so important, but it’s also looking more broadly. more holistically, and looking at the entire ecosystem that helps ensure the success of international students, immigrants, and refugees. And I’ve had the experience of feeling very displaced from my home country during a civil war.

[00:31:53] Esther Benjamin: I have been an immigrant, I’ve been an international student, and I just feel fortunate. [00:32:00] To work with a team to work with an organization that is all about inclusion and opportunity. So an exciting 50 years and excited to launch into the next 50 years as well.

[00:32:14] Coach Kwan: Wow. Congratulations on your organization’s 50th anniversary and many more years to come.

[00:32:22] Esther Benjamin: Thank you so much, Kwan. What a privilege to join you today.

[00:32:27] Coach Kwan: Absolutely. It’s my pleasure having you on this show. Thank you for your insights.

[00:32:34] Esther Benjamin: Thank you for the work you do and for the advocacy that you provide to our community.

[00:32:40] Coach Kwan: means so much. And I’m looking forward to continuing, you know, being the big fan of WES and I love all your research papers and we use that to help support international students as well.

[00:32:53] Esther Benjamin: Thank you so much.

[00:32:55] Coach Kwan: Thank you. And everyone,

[00:32:56] Coach Kwan: if you enjoyed this podcast, follow our channel and [00:33:00] share your positive thoughts with a review. Your support helps others find us. Thank you for tuning in and being part of our ICAway community.

[00:33:09] Coach Kwan: Have a great day and I will see you next time.

[00:33:11] Coach Kwan: Think big and live your dream.

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