Even so, thanks to other anti-immigrant policies, international student enrollment is still expected to plummet this fall to its lowest level in decades.
This will seed problems in the U.S. economy for years to come.
Enrollment of new international students at U.S. universities in the fall semester of the 2020-2021 academic year is projected to decline 63 to 98 percent from 2018-2019 levels, according to a National Foundation for American Policy analysis. That wide range of estimates reflects uncertainty about how other immigration measures will be implemented over the coming weeks.
The most pessimistic figure in that range would place enrollment of new foreign students at its lowest level since the end of World War II.
Two major U.S. policy decisions are expected to hold back enrollment.
First, U.S. embassies and consulates around the world suspended routine services amid pandemic closures; that includes processing of student visas. The State Department says visa services are being phased back in, but it hasn’t given dates for when it will reopen which consulates. And even if consulates in countries that send the largest numbers of students, such as India, reopen soon, there’s likely to be a big backlog of applications to be processed.
Already, there may not be sufficient time to process and approve visas for the fall semester — which at many institutions begins in weeks.
Additionally, many countries are still subject to U.S. travel bans related to the pandemic. Even if consulates reopen, it’s unclear whether students from these places can get U.S. visas. At least one consulate, in Vienna, has said students may qualify for “national interest exceptions” to the travel ban; but State Department higher-ups have not issued policy.
Countries subject to covid-19-related travel bans — including China, Europe’s Schengen zone and Britain — accounted for about 40 percent of international students in the United States in 2018-2019, according to the Institute of International Education.
“Someone from the Czech Republic would probably be more scared of coming to the U.S. than we should be going to Czech Republic,” says Stuart Anderson, executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy. Even so, he says, the Trump administration may be loath to lift its travel ban for fear of tacitly acknowledging that other countries might be doing better than we are against covid-19. So, perhaps national-interest exemptions could provide a “face-saving” way around the ban, if other consulates grant them, he said.
Colleges surveyed by the Institute of International Education said the top reasons their foreign student enrollment had been falling included visa application problems, the social and political environment in the United States, and U.S. tuition costs. Other countries, such as Canada and Australia, have taken advantage of such discontent and have recruited international students heavily.
Even though the administration dropped its controversial recent policy barring visas to all international students whose classes have gone online-only, the administration is reportedly considering another, narrower ban that could apply only to newly enrolled students.
Would you come to the United States under these conditions?
Trump might be unbothered by any reservations foreign students have about visiting a coronavirus-infested, anti-immigrant country doing its darnedest to keep them out. After all, he’s merely keeping his promise to build the (figurative) wall against all forms of immigration — legal, illegal, skilled, unskilled, professional, working-class, researcher, student, whatever.
Others, of course, see such policies as inflicting needless cruelty, uncertainty and anxiety upon international students, many of whom have had their lives upended multiple times.
There are also selfish, “America First”-style reasons to oppose policies that drive away global student talent.
In fact, Trump and senior policy adviser Stephen Miller might pause to consider who and what else their plans to punish immigrants also hurt, perhaps irreparably: American students, American schools, American businesses, American workers and America’s balance of trade.
International students enrich campuses figuratively (by bringing perspectives and customs from around the world) and literally (by paying more money). International students are more likely to pay full, undiscounted tuition. Schools — especially those in states where taxpayer funding for public education has fallen — use this tuition to remain solvent and to subsidize their American students.
International students are also more likely to study STEM fields, providing a crucial pipeline of talent to the U.S. tech industry and to America’s research and development infrastructure, among other sectors.
Among the data points I’ve noted before: Over the course of the past century, immigrant scientists helped revolutionize U.S. science and innovation, as documented in a study of patent records by economists Petra Moser, Alessandra Voena and Fabian Waldinger. Today, more than half of the most highly valued U.S. tech companies were founded by immigrants. Related research by economist Britta Glennon suggests that making the U.S. skilled-immigration system more restrictive ends up pushing jobs and innovation outside the United States.
And, finally, there’s trade.
Education-related travel is one of America’s most successful exports, valued at about $44 billion last year, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. U.S. educational exports were roughly equal to our total exports in soybeans, coal and natural gas — combined.
And yet Trump, who has pledged to eliminate the trade deficit, is nuking this wildly successful educational export industry. Maybe because he prioritizes harming immigrants; maybe because he prioritizes harming colleges, a favorite target of many on the right; maybe because he genuinely doesn’t understand how much economic damage his actions cause.
Whatever the motivation, America will be paying the cost long after Trump has left office.