The Cost of International Education

This blog post was originally published on my other blog,

Lately, I have been thinking about the environmental impact of international education. Given that students travel across the world to study, the CO2 emissions generated from their initial trip, perhaps eventual return, and any trips in between, cannot be ignored. According to the IPCC, aviation contributes about 3.5% to climate change, only set to increase in the future. The exact impact is difficult to ascertain, as it is hard to separate aviation from other anthropogenic impacts.

It is hard to judge the per passenger, per kilometer CO2 emissions, as routes and planes vary. However, the Carbon Footprint website offers a calculator. Since China is the number one country of origin for international students in the United States, example calculations for the leading enrollers of international students in the US could be as follows:

University Route
(on American Airlines)
(in metric tons of CO2)
New York University PEK -> DFW -> JFK 1.88
University of Southern California PEK -> LAX 1.41
Northeastern University PEK -> DFW -> BOS 1.92
Columbia PEK -> DFW -> JFK 1.88
Arizona State University PEK -> DFW -> PHX 1.76

(Again, keep in mind that these will vary based on originating city/country, destination, and connections. The further away or the more connections, the higher the emissions will be.)

Averaging the emissions together, that is 1.77 metric tons of CO2 per student just to enter the university. According to IIE, these universities enroll a total of 76,606 international students. There is no public data easily accessible to find out how many Chinese students they enroll, but since China accounts for 33% of international student enrollment, let’s guesstimate and say 25,280 students. That makes for about 44,746 metric tons of CO2 to attend university. That seems like a really big impact. You can enter that number into the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator to get a sense of what that means.

International students are just one example. Other examples include study abroad participants, and even attendance at international (and domestic) conferences (see also here).

I am in no way making the argument that international students should not enroll and attend universities in the States (or elsewhere). Rather, I am wondering if there are any practical solutions that can be thought of to offset their impact. Specifically, I am wondering if it would be feasible to capture a small percentage of their often enormous tuition payments and use that to either purchase carbon offsets or invest in campus sustainability projects. The rest of this blog post will consider the former.

There are a number of carbon offset companies on the internet. These companies use money from purchased offsets to fund different projects. For example, Sustainable Travel International lists three ways their offsets work: “international conservation carbon reforestation projects; renewable energy projects in the United States, or international renewable energy and energy efficiency projects”. There has been some criticism of carbon offsets, with some suggesting they are akin to the indulgences of medieval Europe. In other words, they make people feel good about their impact without truly offsetting carbon emissions; rather, they allow “governments and companies in rich countries to offset their emissions through projects in developing countries (Climate Change News). This is often through reforestation once a forest has been cut down. Yet, some offsets do fund renewable energy initiatives or methane capture projects. And, there is some evidence that carbon offsets might work. An article in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment looks at a small offset program in California and concluded that:

Offsets can contribute to climate‐change mitigation, but they can also hinder it if they distract from necessary emissions reductions overall or decrease the feasibility of deep decarbonization. We show that California’s forest offsets – by design – account for a small percentage of emissions reductions but simultaneously provide an important opportunity to supply meaningful carbon sequestration and multiple co‐benefits.

So, it is important to recognize that offsets are not a true solution but rather a temporary one. If carbon offsets only focus on deforestation and reforestation without actually decreasing emissions, they seem rather pointless.

That being said, with their limitations in mind, carbon offsets may be one way to reduce the impact of international education to some extent. How financially feasible is it?

Sustainable Travel International’s carbon calculator told me that my trip from Beijing to Boston would be 2.7 metric tons and cost around $65 to offset. In terms of out-of-state tuition that international students pay (for example, the average undergraduate international student pays $30,792 [calculated from IPEDS] at a public masters or doctoral university), the cost of a carbon offset like above is just 0.2% of the tuition. Even rounding up to a $100 offset to account for students who travel further or from places that require more connections amounts to 0.3% of the tuition to offset that student’s carbon.

I think any university administrator would think that is a reasonable amount of money to spend since they are already getting enormous revenue from the higher out-of-state tuition markup. Such offsets can also be captured for study abroad participants’ tuition, and since universities already carefully keep track of travel, it could easily be done for personnel travel.

Why would they want to do this, especially if every penny counts? For one, there is the moral obligation to do what can be done to help halt climate change. But, typically the moral premise is not enough. It may help institutions participate in the UN’s Higher Education Sustainability Initiative as well. Having a “green” campus may attract more students or a different type of student. In addition, sustainability could affect future rankings, or current rankings in the sustainable campus index.

Essentially, for little money, there could be a positive impact.

Of course, this comes with a number of caveats. First, is that it is important to recognize the limits of carbon offsets (as mentioned above). It may be more beneficial to use the same 0.3% of tuition to help further fund campus-based sustainability projects that mitigate climate change. In fact, it is likely that some institutions already use tuition to fund such projects.

In addition, individual universities calculating and purchasing carbon offsets may be a moot point as more airlines already include offsets in their charges. This might increase in the future as more countries participate in the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA; see also: “Stop Worrying about Buying Carbon Offsets for your Flights”).

Finally, it is important to consider the total climate change impact of students, not just their initial trip. Do the students live on-campus or off-campus? Do they walk, bike, take public transportation, or drive to school? I could not find any statistics or information that tell me the habits of most international students. But, let’s take NYU as an example, which enrolls the most international students in the US. It is likely that international students who attend NYU will not drive, as traffic is terrible and public transportation is well-developed for New York City. In addition, it is likely they will not be able to afford a large space to live in, which already decreases their energy usage. It may be that, by the end of the academic year, their carbon emissions end up equal to or less than the average student or resident. If the campus promotes green initiatives, the impact might even be lower.

In the end, it’s important to recognize that international education does play a role in contributing to climate change through aviation emissions. One issue is there is very little research on student impacts (domestic, out-of-state, and international; on-campus, off-campus; though there is some research on campus impacts and solutions). One solution proposed is to capture a small percentage of extant student tuition and reallocate that for either carbon offsetting or other sustainability projects. Given the cost of offsetting, this can be done without passing any additional cost to students. For other projects, it is likely they are already being funded through tuition, and these funds could certainly be increased given the pressing issue of climate change, again with no additional cost to the student. If we deem both international education and the environment important, then we must find some way to reconcile the impact while mitigating further climate change.

Anthony Schmidt
PhD Student / Data Scientist

My research interests include climate change, society, and education. I also have a focus on quantitative methods, including data science education and data visualization.

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