International students continue to feel a chill from political shifts in the U.S. that have made emigration and study more difficult here, says an association of international educators who have called on Congress to respond.
“International students create jobs, drive research, enrich our classrooms, strengthen national security, and become America’s greatest foreign policy assets. Yet new international student enrollment is down dramatically across the United States,” NAFSA: Association of International Educators said in a report released this week.
The U.S. has long been a leader in attracting foreign students to its colleges and universities. There are more than 1 million international students in the U.S., with half coming from China or India, according to yearly statistics compiled by the Institute for International Education (IIE) .
$39 billion industry
International education is a $39 billion industry and is significant revenue from some cities and states. One out of three international students studies in California, New York or Texas, while Massachusetts, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio, Michigan and Indiana have significant foreign student populations as well, IIE reports.
Since 2016, the Trump administration has altered immigration policy for students, starting with an executive order in 2017 that limited entry to the U.S. to citizens from seven mostly Muslim countries. When ordered, President Donald Trump said it was a national security measure. A slide in numbers of students enrolling in U.S. colleges and universities coincided with the so-called travel ban, and many educators and students decried the administration’s actions.
Since then, the administration has threatened to limit the duration of some student visas, specifically students from China.
The orders had a chilling effect on international student enthusiasm for the U.S., experts said. If a student’s visa is rescinded before graduation, they may have to start over in another country, losing tuition, fees, credits, contacts, associations, and sometimes, research projects.
“Inconsistent government action and uncertainty undermines economic growth and American competitiveness and creates anxiety for employees who follow the law,” the IIE report stated. “In many cases, these employees studied here and received degrees from U.S. universities, often in critical STEM fields.”
“What I hear from students is increased cost, lack of national strategy, immigration uncertainty and unwelcome rhetoric” is dissuading them from studying in the U.S., said Salma Benhaida, director of international recruitment at Kent State University in Ohio.
Benhaida and other recruitment colleagues were leading a session at NAFSA’s annual conference in Washington this week. When they asked how many colleges and universities were experiencing enrollment declines, about half of the 150 educators and recruiters in attendance raised their hands. Some mentioned safety and security concerns students and their families have about U.S. violence, such as mass shootings and unrest near campuses.
Competitors seize opportunity
Competing countries have seized on the opportunity to divert international students their way. In the past two years, countries like Canada, Australia, New Zealand and others have seen great gains while enrollment of new students in the U.S. has faltered.
David Di Maria, associate vice provost for international education at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, points to a 17 percent increase in international student enrollment in Canada since 2016, “because Canada is seen as a nondiscriminatory society” by international applicants, he adds.
Rajika Bhandari, senior adviser for research and strategy at IIE, reported that China is the third top post of international students, which educators refer to as “globally mobile.”
“Competitors like Canada, China and Australia are recruiting and attracting more international students and scholars and benefiting at the expense of the United States,” NAFSA wrote. “For example, in 2014, China surpassed the United Kingdom and the United States as a top destination for international students from Africa — and it continues to draw increasing numbers of students from the African continent.”
But educators and officials say the cultural give and take of international students is as valuable to the American economy as dollars. Exchange has a multiplier effect in diplomacy, international relations and stability, they say.
“Competition now is for the hearts and minds of future leaders and businesspeople,” Di Maria said.
When students come to the U.S., they establish relationships that can last a lifetime. And because the U.S. has attracted “the best and brightest” from around the world, those relationships might show up later in life in the boardroom, at international exchanges for business, and in diplomacy and geopolitics.
“International students learn about the best of America by studying side by side with our students from cities, towns and rural communities in the Central Valley and throughout California — inspiring global interconnectedness and making international education the perfect incubator for diplomacy,” the NAFSA report quoted Marjorie Zatz, vice provost and dean of graduate education at the University of California-Merced. “Knowledge of American culture and our political and social structures serves a diplomatic as well as educational function.”
The report also cites CEOs Tim Cook of Apple, Chuck Robbins of Cisco Systems, and Indra K. Nooyi, formerly of PepsiCo, who have publicly lauded the role international students play in U.S. innovation.
“This downward trend must stop in order for the United States to remain competitive in today’s global market,” said Esther D. Brimmer, NAFSA executive director and CEO. “International students and scholars create jobs, drive innovation, enrich our classrooms, strengthen national security, and become America’s greatest foreign policy assets. International students and scholars are truly great for America.”