My column from last Tuesday discussed one of our most successful export industries, higher education, which President Trump (among other elected officials) has been threatening with anti-immigrant policy and rhetoric; several recent data releases suggest that the long-term growth in international students has now reversed itself. In response, a reader asked me how U.S. employment in higher education compares to employment in some of the industries Trump has sought to protect through tariffs.
As you might expect, the comparison is not exactly flattering to Trump’s trade policies: Higher ed vastly dwarfs those other sectors.
According to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’s Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages, from the third quarter of 2017, about 3 million people were employed by colleges and universities, both public and private. That tally excludes those employed by junior colleges (an additional 697,000), technical and trade schools (131,000), and other related employers, which likely enroll fewer international students.
By contrast, in iron and steel mills and ferroalloy production, employment tallied 82,000. Alumina and aluminum production had 57,000 jobs. Meanwhile, millions of Americans are employed in industries that use these metals as an input (aerospace, construction, energy, beer can manufacturers, etc.), and will therefore face higher prices and the threat of layoffs. Many millions more may also find their jobs threatened if, say, China follows through with its threats of retaliatory tariffs.
I would offer you my chart of higher ed employment vs. steel and aluminum employment, but given that higher ed employment is more than 20 times as large as steel and aluminum employment combined, the chart’s a bit hard to read.
Now you can argue that college payrolls are bloated, they don’t need that many non-instructional employees, etc. But if your goals are simply to reduce our trade deficit and put as many Americans to work as possible, as Trump seems to desire, it’s hard to recommend the suite of policies this administration has so far adopted: driving away foreign customers from one of our most competitive exports (higher education), protecting tiny industries (steel and aluminum) at the expense of much bigger ones, and now threatening an all-out trade war with China.