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Moody’s warns Trump presidency could hurt colleges counting on international students

President-elect Donald Trump listens as President Obama talks to the media in the Oval Office on Nov. 10. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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The xenophobic rhetoric and nativist policies heralded by President-elect Donald Trump could have consequences for colleges and universities counting on foreign students to raise revenue.

Moody’s Investors Service anticipates the flow of international students into the United States will wane if Trump upholds a campaign promise to limit or end the H-1B visa program for high-skilled foreign workers.

“President-elect Trump’s proposal to discourage companies from employing H-1B workers would likely reduce international student enrollment because it would make it harder for companies to hire foreigners, diminishing the post-study job prospects of international students in the US,” Moody’s analyst Pranav Sharma wrote, in a weekly credit outlook.

Donald Trump flip-flops, then flips and flops more on H-1B visas

Trump vacillated throughout his campaign on the visa program, initially calling for restrictions, then praising highly skilled immigration, before vowing after a debate to “end forever the use of the H-1B as a cheap labor program.” It’s unclear where he currently stands as his transition team did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

“Even the possibility of, and the uncertainty around, possible immigration policy changes may be enough to discourage some international students,” Sharma wrote. “There are numerous examples showing how enrollment from foreign countries can quickly shift based on changes to domestic and international government policies affecting scholarship programs, immigration, student visas and post-study work prospects.”

International students represent about 5 percent of the more than 20 million students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities, according to the Institute of International Education. Over the past decade, Moody’s said, the number of foreigners studying in the country has soared 73 percent, with most students coming from China, India, South Korea and Saudi Arabia.

Trump’s pledge to impose a temporary ban on Muslim immigration coupled with the rash of hate crimes on college campuses in the wake of his election have made students from overseas fearful of applying to schools in the United States, said Rebecca Grappo, president of RNG International, an education consulting firm that helps foreign students navigate college admissions. She said one Indonesian family considering colleges in the United States expressed concerns about the safety of their daughter, who has a Muslim name.

“I assured the family that this country has empathic, culturally sensitive people,” Grappo said. “It seemed to calm some of their fears, so we’re still working together. Everybody hasn’t panicked and run away yet, but it is certainly something we’re keeping an eye on.”

So far, none of the students Grappo is working with have trashed their applications to U.S. schools, despite their fears. With most schools setting deadlines for January, it is too early to tell whether Trump’s election is affecting the volume of applications.

Early-decision applications from international students at George Mason University are actually up this year, said Dean of Admissions Amy Takayama-Perez. Still, she has told her staff to be prepared for questions from prospective students overseas, given the uncertainty surrounding the election.

“Students may be taking a little bit longer to gather information and make decisions,” she said. “Everybody is waiting to see and keeping in close contact with the university.”

George Mason University seeks more foreign students

Universities have embraced international students for the cultural diversity, varied perspectives and revenue they bring. Foreign students typically receive little to no financial aid and pay higher tuition. Last year, college students from overseas contributed more than $35 billion to the U.S. economy, according to the Commerce Department. Those dollars have helped offset meager state investment at some public colleges and enrollment declines at small, private universities.

Moody’s: Colleges have entered the new normal of flat tuition revenue

Moody’s estimates that as much as 10 percent of total net tuition revenue — the money earned from students after schools provide financial aid — in the U.S. is derived from international students. As the number of students graduating from high school wanes in parts of the country and families grow more price sensitive, international students provide a financial buffer.

About 18 percent of the student body at Northeastern University in Boston hail from overseas, but the private school has diversified its revenue streams enough to hedge against the risk of declines in enrollment. University spokeswoman Renata Nyul pointed to a Moody’s report that said professional graduate degrees and a network of regional campuses are helping to bolster revenue.

Sharma of Moody’s said universities with “less well-known global brands and those that more recently entered the international student market” will bear the brunt of blowback from immigration policy changes. Still, as universities around the world recruit from the same pool of international students, changes to visa allocation or post-graduation employment policy could drive students to other countries.

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