The Biden administration can help stop plummeting international enrollment in America’s colleges and universities.
It has been a devastating year for American colleges and universities. The decline in international enrollment led to a loss of $1.8 billion in the last academic year, and this deficit is expected to grow. It might seem obvious to blame the ongoing pandemic, but that’s not the whole story. Over my two decades working in international education, I’ve seen what attracts international students—and what pushes them away. And today’s plummeting enrollment of nearly 15 percent for undergraduate programs and nearly 8 percent for graduate programs has a primary cause: former President Donald Trump.
From day one, Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and racist policies, like the travel ban targeting seven Muslim-majority nations, made international students feel unwelcome on our campuses. (One of President Joe Biden’s first executive orders removed that ban.) But the damage has been done. Last summer, Trump announced that only returning—not new—international students could come to the United States if they were planning to enroll in online-only classes. Then in September, the White House issued a proposal that would force many students from 59 countries, most of them African, to leave their campuses after two years unless they get approval to stay through a complicated and expensive extension process.
“International students and immigrant members of our community feel their safety and security is under threat,” explained Laila Hlass, a Tulane law professor and co-director of the Tulane Immigrant Rights Clinic.
Many agree. In a recent survey of 500 college administrators, half expressed the belief that the “feeling of being unwelcome in the United States” led to declining enrollments.
This xenophobia has compelled international students to prioritize schools in other countries, and who can blame them? To combat the legacy of Trump policies, we must go above and beyond. For too long, we’ve lagged behind other countries in truly valuing international students and scholars. We must establish a coordinated national strategy to recruit these students and incentivize them to choose America. Here’s what that should look like.
First, Biden must continue to reverse harmful Trump-era policies. As mentioned above, he took an important step in overturning the Muslim ban. This was crucial. Students from banned countries were supposed to be exempt from the ban, but there were widespread reports of visas being held up or denied altogether. Now Biden must reject the proposal forcing some students to leave the country after two years of school. Just 41% of students graduate in four years, let alone half that time, so that proposal is unrealistic and discriminatory.
Second, Biden must make us competitive. That means incentivizing international students to come here. Other countries are already doing this. Germany, Iceland, and Finland offer international students free tuition, and Canada and Australia provide scholarships and extended work visas. We should be doing some of the same—and more.
Biden has talked about providing green cards to international students who complete doctorates in STEM fields. In the shorter term, he should provide better flexibility for new international students pursuing an online education. And he should shore up the Optional Training Program, which temporarily allows all international graduates to join the American workforce. This would include a 60-day extension for bachelors’ and masters’ graduates with STEM degrees. Trump repeatedly tried to dismantle OPT, which had a major chilling effect on international enrollment. Even symbolic actions like restoring the phrase “nation of immigrants” to the USCIS mission statement, will help America feel more inviting to international students.
These international students make key contributions to American research and innovation. In 2015, they accounted for more than 42% of STEM graduate students in the country,with more than 79%of that group studying computer science and electrical engineering, according to “Not Coming to America,” a report by New American Economy.
We desperately need these students, especially in our post-COVID economy. Hundreds of communities around the country depend on them. In the 2018-2019 academic year, international students injected $41 billion to the US economy and supported more than 458,000 American jobs, according to the National Association for Foreign Student Affairs. In my home state of Louisiana, international students contributed $265 million and supported 2,996 jobs. But it could have been much more. Our state experienced one of the steepest declines in international student enrollment following Trump’s election, according to NAE.
Beyond economics, international students bring diversity to our universities and global perspectives to the classroom. They help foster the kind of cross-cultural exchange and relationship-building we need to resolve pressing global challenges. One PhD student from Bangladesh told me that international students are “happy about Biden” but are also watching the new president closely: Will he follow through on his promises and do so before the next school year begins?
Because it’s not enough to make international students feel welcome on our campuses; we must also make them feel welcomed and valued in our country after they graduate. Our higher education system is at stake, but so is our economy, our reputation, and our ability to work with others from around the world.