Enrollment of international students in U.S. institutions of higher education is believed to be down for the coming school year — and the Trump administration may make it harder for those who do come to stay. As this Washington Post story explains, top officials at the Department of Homeland Security are considering a measure that would require foreign students to reapply for permission to stay in the United States every single year of their college experience.
Not only would that cause enormous headaches for thousands of students who hold visas and require a great deal more paper processing by U.S. government workers, but it could strike a financial blow to colleges and universities, which bring in billions of dollars from foreigners.
According to the latest available data from the Institute of International Education, the number of international students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities jumped by 7.1 percent in 2015-16, making it the 10th year of enrollment expansion. China, India and Saudi Arabia send the most students to the United States, and in the 2015-16 year, students from those countries constituted about 53 percent of all international students in the United States.
But a recent survey by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers found that nearly 40 percent of the more than 250 schools surveyed had seen a drop in international applications for the coming school year.
In this post, Dennis Hanno, president of Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., explains what is at stake for U.S. institutions of higher education and for international students in the Trump era.
By Dennis Hanno
In the weeks ahead, colleges and universities across the United States expect to welcome more than 1 million foreign students seeking to pursue undergraduate, graduate and professional degrees from our campuses. Until recently, many higher-education institutions have taken this annual influx for granted, as have public officials and citizens — but none of us has that luxury any more. The annual migration to U.S. college campuses appears to have dipped this year, and it may be more than a one-year dip.
Our political climate appears to be the problem. Current public debate here in the United States, which includes that yet-to-be enforced executive order temporarily banning immigration from six countries, has encouraged international students to look elsewhere for their degrees. The impact of this change in attitude is being felt at many colleges and universities, where the number of international students expected this year will decline after a decade of growth.
Early surveys by private higher education consulting firms found between 30 to 40 percent of institutions reporting enrollment declines of as much as 10 percent among international students. If this is a trend, it is worrisome.
College presidents and others in higher education need to speak up about the danger that lies ahead if we stay on the present track — and to advocate that our nation take steps to change course. We certainly owe it to our institutions to be clear about the extent to which their vitality depends upon creating a global intellectual community on our campuses. But I would argue that the responsibility goes beyond our own campuses; we owe it to our fellow citizens as well.
Our institutions enjoy nonprofit status because of the significant contributions that they make to the common good. Welcoming international students to our campuses offers benefits in three important ways. It creates opportunities for U.S. citizens to connect to the wider world, it provides a significant source of tuition revenue that directly benefits domestic students, and it makes vital contributions to our nation’s standing as the world’s leader. As the stewards of our nation’s higher education system, we need to be active in ensuring that public officials and voters fully appreciate the connection between the public service that we provide and the public policies our nation pursues.
I would be the first to admit there are risks in raising your voice, in advocating to keep our borders open to international students. My institution, Wheaton College in Massachusetts, opted in January to offer a refugee scholarship to one student from a war-torn country, with a preference to those coming from the nations identified for exclusion by the new administration.
The announcement brought much praise and many applications for admission, but also criticism — some of it very angry — for wading into politics, and from isolationists. It also raised questions among several alumni, including prospective donors. But this is too important to our institutions, and to the country, to ignore.
The United States has a number of important reasons to want to protect this flow of intellectual trade, and economic and cultural capital, including economic impact. While they comprise just a fraction of overall enrollment, these students contribute a larger percentage, per student, of the actual cost of education than domestic students do. Nearly 70 percent of the funding that these students use to pay for their education comes from their family’s savings. Overall, they contribute $35 billion to the U.S. economy each year.
The reasons to welcome international students, however, goes far beyond financial considerations. Numerous studies have shown that all students learn more when they attend a college that includes students from many different backgrounds.
Diversity is an educational asset, and international students are a rich source of meaningful difference. For example, imagine the perspectives that a student from a European Union nation could bring to a political science class discussing national identity and international alliances. Or the observations that a student from Japan might offer in a psychology class studying cultural attitudes toward health and caregiving.
Make no mistake, international students benefit, too. American higher education is still generally recognized as the world’s best. The variety of institutions alone stands as unique — from enormous, research universities with populations that rival small cities to the comparatively small liberal arts colleges that provide highly personalized educational experiences. The array of choices makes it possible for students to find the place that best fits their personal interests, preferences and needs.
The incredible choice that American higher education reflects something far more important and attractive to people around the globe: the personal and collective freedom — of speech, religion, thought and enterprise — that is our nation’s ideal. Our colleges, and our society as a whole often struggle to live up to those ideals, but our shared commitment to these ideas shines brightly to people around the world.
Those ideals, and the opportunities for a better future that they represent, are what draw students to the United States. I see the power of this attraction firsthand when I am working in Africa, organizing workshops and conferences that teach leadership and entrepreneurial skills to high school students in Rwanda, Ghana, Tanzania and Uganda. The students with whom I work in those countries are full of ideas and energy, and they dream of attending U.S. colleges. I’m proud to say that more than a few have over the years. In the process, we are building the capacity of these countries to power their own growth in the future.
This is why international students are so important to the nation as a whole.
The world’s view of the United States as a land of opportunity is based, in no small measure, on the possibilities that our colleges and universities create. When our country is viewed as a source of promise, we are prized partners, enhancing our prestige and influence around the world. It’s what diplomats refer to as “soft power,” and it is a powerful way to help keep our country safe and secure as well as prosperous for many years to come.