If this policy had been enacted when I was an international student, it would have ruined my professional and personal life. But in addition to the personal tragedies that will follow this policy, the rule will hurt the financial viability of U.S. higher education, hinder American innovation and stunt the country’s competitiveness on the global stage.
I was 17 in 2003 when I arrived at Brandeis University as an international student from Israel. By 2016, I had also earned a masters from Georgetown University and a PhD from the University of Notre Dame, receiving an education and experience of unparalleled quality made possible by an F1 student visa. I also taught, worked, volunteered, traveled, made friends, fell in love and built a life in the United States.
Asking students to attend classes remotely from their home countries is no substitute for this experience — if they are even able to access their classes at all.
Time differences and unreliable or uneven access to broadband Internet in countries such as Pakistan, Nigeria and Bangladesh may make attending classes regularly nearly impossible. For students going back to undemocratic countries, participation in open discussions typical to a U.S. liberal arts education can be dangerous. China, for example, has been the largest source country of international students in the United States. There is little doubt that the online activities of returning students would be closely monitored by a government infamous for its Internet surveillance and censorship.
International students aren’t the only ones who would lose out if they are put in a position that might make them reconsider their enrollment in U.S. institutions.
According to the 2019 Open Doors Report on International Education, there are more than 1 million international students in the United States. These students typically pay full tuition, which subsidizes the costs of enrolling more U.S. students. For public colleges and universities, the revenue generated from international students also helps moderate the effects of federal and state education budget cuts. This policy may force schools such as San Jose State, where international students account for nearly 11 percent of the student body, to choose between what they believe is safe and their bottom lines. How many U.S. students will have to defer enrollment or take on more student debt because of this ICE policy?
It isn’t only universities that would feel the gaps in their budgets: In 2018, international students contributed $45 billion to the U.S. economy through consumption and federal, state and local taxes. Small college towns and cities reliant on revenue from the student population would be hit the hardest if international students — who are more likely to continue living in the areas where their schools are based while learning remotely — are forced to leave.
This economic dynamic has been at risk for some time, and ICE’s decision could accelerate the downward spiral. While the number of international students enrolled in U.S. schools has continued to rise, the rate of that increase has slowed because of high tuition costs, visa processing delays, restrictions on work after graduation, and increased competition from universities in Canada and Europe. But the pandemic contributed to what the American Council on Education predicted to be a 25 percent decline in enrollment for the upcoming academic year — even before ICE announced this new restriction.
ICE’s new policy could also undermine U.S. ability to compete on the international stage. The United States’ excellent higher education institutions — and their ability to attract international talent — are a strategic asset given that countries such as China and Russia often struggle to retain their “best and brightest.” Nearly half of international students in the United States are pursuing education in STEM fields, making them indispensable to American scientific and technological innovation.
Though I was born in the Soviet Union and grew up in Israel, where my family moved to escape poverty, growing criminality and anti-Semitism, I am writing this article from my home in Washington, because of that F1 visa I received so long ago. Forcing international students to upend their schooling and professional growth, or to choose between their health or their education, doesn’t just hurts them. It weakens America.
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