The number of international students in the United States fell about 2 percent in the 2018-2019 academic year — and that was before the covid-19 pandemic closed borders and shut down most international air travel.

Now a steeper drop is likely not only because of covid-19 but also because of Trump administration moves to restrict the ability of foreign students to study in the United States. The administration is ramping up restrictions on visas for Chinese students — the majority of international students here — and is considering cutting or eliminating a work-study program for foreigners.

International students pour billions of dollars every year into the U.S. economy. Furthermore, educators say students from other countries bring important diversity to campuses.

In this post, Kendra Sharp, professor of humanitarian engineering at Oregon State University, explains why administration policies making it harder for international students to study here will wind up hurting not only the students and schools affected but also the United States. Sharp is also a senior adviser to the provost for international affairs at Oregon State University.

By Kendra Sharp

Against the backdrop of covid-19 and widespread protests decrying racism and police brutality, the Trump administration is ramping up restrictions on visas for Chinese students to study in the United States. The administration is also considering pausing or ending the post-study optional practical training (OPT) work program for international students in this country. And Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) recently introduced legislation in the Senate that, if passed, would put a temporary but open-ended hold on the issuance of visas to new Chinese students.

These are but the most recent federal actions threatening our ability to attract, retain, and benefit — both intellectually and economically — from international students and scholars.

Neither the U.S. higher education system nor our economy can afford to lose these students who help drive our innovation, global competitiveness, and ability to prepare our domestic students to work in an increasingly globalized workplace.

In 2019, 1.1 million international students enrolled in U.S. institutions of higher education representing over 5 percent of the total. Chinese students comprised one-third. At my own institution, our 3,400 international students make up 11 percent of our student body. The organization known as NAFSA: Association of International Educators, estimates the contribution to the U.S. economy from international students studying at U.S. colleges and universities at $41 billion and the creation of almost 460,000 jobs.

State universities typically rely heavily on tuition and fee revenue; on our Oregon State University campus at Corvallis campus, tuition and fee revenue makes up 65 percent of our core education and general fund (operations) budget, almost three times as much as our state allocation (23 percent). Thus, reductions — or potential reductions — in international student enrollments can have a significant financial impact on our institution.

It is not only about economics, though. U.S. universities have an obligation to ensure their graduates are prepared to work in an increasingly globalized workplace. Interacting with international students on both an academic and social basis improves all students’ cross-cultural communication skills and allows them to learn from diverse perspectives. International students participate in research in our university laboratories and contribute to our U.S. research enterprise. And global research collaboration is critical to our success in addressing urgent global challenges such as covid-19.

Adding new restrictions on visas or threatening to curtail OPT isn’t the first assault on international students’ interests. The U.S. Department of Education’s guidelines for the use of Cares Act emergency funds for students excludes international students, among others. Like many other institutions, we are working to ensure they can access institutional or other emergency funds where needed and possible.

The restrictions on Chinese student visas in a new presidential proclamation apply to a relatively narrow subset of graduate students but every new restriction adds to the sense that the U.S. is an unwelcome destination for international students. It’s difficult to tell exactly how narrowly the proclamation will be applied when the Department of State fails to issue any lists of concerning entities or details of how the policy will be implemented. Thus, such announcements are unsettling to a far greater number of prospective students.

The bill introduced in the Senate would, however, impact all new prospective Chinese students for now. It would require a review of visas for all of the more than 300,000 Chinese students currently in the United States before any new Chinese student visas are issued.

In Sen. Tammy Duckworth’s (D-Ill.) words on Twitter on June 9: “we know about how the PRC has targeted our intellectual property … for its own scientific and military advancement … but taking advantage of this moment of fear and division in our country to stoke xenophobia and paint an entire people as guilty by association is not the right way to approach this challenge. It’s not the American way.”

Measures under consideration to pause or end OPT would be far-reaching, not just for U.S. higher education, but also for the U.S. economy and workforce. The ability to work in the country after graduation has been rated as very important to 62 percent of international students researching overseas study. The OPT program increases innovation capacity and is a recruiting mechanism for highly skilled workers, especially in STEM fields, with no job loss or decreased salaries for U.S. workers.

Critics contend that the OPT program translates to fewer jobs for U.S. workers. In fact, it is precisely the elimination of OPT that is more likely to lead to job loss for U.S. workers, according to CEOs of many major corporations. Many studies have shown that immigrants contribute to gross domestic product growth because they represent new consumers, and immigrants enable business growth by filling critical skills gaps. The associated GDP and business growth, in turn, creates new job opportunities for U.S. workers.

Recognizing the importance of our ability to attract and enroll international students, 21 House Republicans have written a letter urging support for both the OPT program and streamlining visa processes to bring these students back to our campuses soon after travel restrictions are lifted.

Critics also contend that the new restrictions for China are necessary for national security, but the U.S. government and our universities themselves already have processes in place to screen our students and protect our sensitive technologies.

Federal agencies themselves are already attending to national security concerns through an expansion of their research integrity framework for federally funded researchers. The newest Chinese visa restrictions represent a much blunter approach with the potential for widespread negative impact on our ability to recruit talented international students and researchers. The temporary but open-ended pause on all new Chinese student visas now proposed in Scott’s bill would be disastrous.

U.S. universities are starting to announce cautiously optimistic plans about returning to at least partial face-to-face instruction in the Fall of 2020. But unless travel restrictions are lifted, commercial flights resume, and visa processing is possible, it is unlikely that new international students will be able to make it to their institutions by then.

This will have a huge impact on institutions across the country, including ours, where we rely on tuition as a significant part of our revenue stream.

The longer-term impacts on the ability to attract international students, scholars, and even faculty to the U.S. are difficult to quantify, although many worry that covid-19 will jeopardize our long-term research infrastructure, which relies on attracting top trainees.

Add to that the new restrictions on Chinese student visas in the presidential proclamation, the proposed Senate legislation and temporary Chinese student visa moratorium, the exclusion of international students from the Cares Act emergency funds, and threats to the Optional Practical Training program, and the picture is worrisome.

The question of whether to reopen our campuses or not is already wrought with programmatic and ethical land mines; adding in the complications of international enrollment can make what’s usually the most hopeful time of the school year downright dour.

But the impact of the absence of our international students, essential to campus life in so many ways, is something we can’t ignore.