Global Glance: March 6, 2017
A quick look at intriguing international stories
By John Bostwick, Managing Editor, Radius
Is Donald Trump Damaging the US Higher Ed Cash Cow?
Less than a week after US voters elected Donald Trump president, the Institute of International Education (IIE) published its annual Open Doors report, which collects information on international students in the United States. The report’s statistics show a growing international-student presence in the US higher-education system. Some professors, administrators and students worry, however, that a Trump White House is already reversing this trend.
Much of Trump’s rhetoric during and after his campaign has emphasized the importance tightening US immigration restrictions and, more generally, placing Americans’ interests above those of other citizens. The following passage from his inaugural address neatly captures his program: “Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families.”
The tone of that speech was bleak, with Trump citing (among other elements of what he called ongoing “American carnage”) that the US has “an education system, flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge.”
The IIE Open Doors report speaks, perhaps, to a different reality as regards the US education system. US higher education is in fact a highly successful, attractive and significant element of the country’s economy. The IIE study indicates that last year the number of international students enrolled in US higher ed institutions exceeded one million for the first time ever, and represented a 7 percent rise over the previous academic year.
Last year’s numbers aren’t aberrations. The IIE report says that the 2015/16 academic year is the tenth consecutive year of growth for international students in the US and that “there are now 85 percent more international students studying at US colleges and universities than were reported a decade ago.”
While those numbers are significant, it’s worth noting that even at over one million people, international students make up only about 5 percent of the total number of students enrolled in US colleges and universities. In other words, international students don’t take up a major portion of slots that might otherwise go to US citizens.
Institutions are of course aware of the need to achieve geographically and culturally balanced student bodies. I happened to take a tour of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst last month, and the guide there noted without prompting that although UMass has a large, growing and valued population of international students, the university has not decreased the number of domestic students it lets in. (Obviously, total enrollment has increased to allow for this.) For its part, the IIE report notes that in previous years there has been only “a small decline in the number of American students enrolled in US higher education.”
Recruiting prospects from other countries for their varied intellectual talents and cultural perspectives is all good, but there’s another significant reason US higher-ed institutions are welcoming more and more international students: their money. The IIE report explains that “international students contributed more than $35 billion to the US economy in 2015, according to the US Department of Commerce — a large increase over the previous year’s total of $31 billion.” It adds that “about 75 percent of all international students receive the majority of their funds from sources outside of the United States.” In other words, international students generally pay full freight, in effect helping subsidize the educations of many US students who receive scholarships and financial aid.
Numerous articles in the run-up to last November’s election noted that Trump’s campaign rhetoric troubled international students inside the US and prospective students abroad. A US News article, for example, cited a survey of 7,000 prospective international students who were asked about studying in the US after a (then-hypothetical) Trump victory. While about a third of the respondents from China and Russia said they’d be “more likely to consider studying in the US after the election,” three times as many respondents from the Middle East “said they were less likely to study in the US than more likely to.”
President Trump took swift action on immigration once in office, issuing an executive order in January banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. Less than a week after the order, USA Today reported that some international students had “already been detained from re-entering the US.” That article notes that, based on Department of Homeland Security stats related to F1 and M1 student visas, “there are 23,763 international students studying in the US affected by the travel ban.” Over half of that total — nearly 15,000 students — come from Iran. Based on the Homeland Security numbers, lost revenue (i.e., lost tuition, fees and other expenses) from the ban could top $700 million dollars.
Those lost revenues only represent the possible direct costs to US institutions that could result from Trump’s travel ban. The ban, Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and other measures (such as the proposed wall along the Mexico-US border) could dissuade international students from non-banned countries from staying in or enrolling in US institutions.
Such a scenario would not just affect the bottom lines of higher-education institutions. A Bloomberg article explains that university presidents fear a significant loss of international students could “disrupt the talent pipeline” in the US workforce and “curb economic growth.” A Seton Hall professor of higher education is quoted in the article as saying, “These are very financially desirable students. … These tend to be people who earn quite a bit of money, come up with new innovations, and they tend to pay a lot of taxes.”
Last Wednesday, the White House revised the January 27 executive order, lifting the travel ban on citizens from one of the countries (Iraq). The dropping of one country — which happens to be a US ally in the fight against global terrorism — is presumably a step in the right direction as far as international students are concerned. But The Washington Post reports that “when it is signed … the order is still expected to include a host of significant changes,” further muddling the situation and presumably causing unease among the international-student community. Moreover, according to statistics from the USA Today article, students from Iraq make up less than 5 percent of the total students from the seven nations that appeared on the original executive order.
It would be a mistake to assume that prospective students outside the US are not paying attention to Trump’s policies and how they might affect their lives, not only as students but (perhaps more importantly) as potential US-based workers who will need visas. The Chicago Tribune interviewed Dayna Crabb, an international recruiter at a US junior college who visited Vietnam prior to the US election. Prospective students in the Asian nation grilled Crabb on which US candidate she supported. Crabb later told the Tribune: “That was alarming for us as recruitment professionals to see that it's impacting their decisions that much. ... These girls said they would race home after school to put on the news or watch what happened at the debates. I felt like these high school students in other countries probably were more in tune with what was going on than even our own local students.”
A Northwestern University student from China quoted by the Tribune confirms that “even the perception of being inhospitable to immigrants could make foreign applicants jittery.” According to IIE, China has over 300,000 citizens studying in US higher-ed institutions, by far the highest from any one nation, nearly twice as many as India, the next country on the list.
An article published in PRI.org last month quotes a former US Treasury official as saying, “There’s no question that higher education is one of the most important US exports to China.” Another expert quoted observes that, “If a real trade war did erupt, and things became very, very contentious, Chinese students could become a target of the Chinese government.” That article goes on to say that economists are predicting that “Trump’s trade rhetoric could convince foreign students to seek degrees in other English-speaking countries like Canada and Australia.”
Some experts quoted in the articles cited here are optimistic that the US higher education system will emerge more or less unscathed after Trump’s presidency. But there’s little doubt that the current White House has already started to diminish the global appeal of a highly profitable and respected sector of the US economy.