President Trump capped his first week in office on Friday, January 27, by instituting a 90-day entry ban on immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries and a 120-day entry ban on all refugees, including an indefinite ban on refugees from Syria. The wording of the executive order led to widespread confusion at international airports around the United States as current green card holders and individuals who entered the country on student visas were barred from entry.
Reaction from leaders in higher education was swift and almost unilaterally condemnatory. Even John Fallon, the CEO of Pearson, remarked that “the implications [of the ban] are deeply worrying.” Mary Sue Coleman, president of the Association of American Universities, echoed the most prevalent concerns in a statement Inside Higher Ed published on January 30.
“The order is stranding students who have been approved to study here and are trying to get back to campus, and threatens to disrupt the education and research of many others,” Coleman writes. “It is vital to our economy and the national interest that we continue to attract the best students, scientists, engineers and scholars.”
American Universities Need International Students
An unlikely critic of Trump’s immigration ban was David Kotok, the chairman and chief investment officer of Cumberland Advisors, a portfolio management firm. His concern reflects the reality that education is “one of the large exports of America.” The United States is viewed worldwide as having the most competitive degree programs and the safest living environment for students across the globe.
Right now, the number of international students enrolled in U.S. institutions of higher education tops one million – the highest number ever — according to the Institute of International Education. China, India, and Saudi Arabia top the list. These students bring an estimated total of $35 billion to the American economy each year.
For universities, the influx of cash is important for several reasons. Because foreign students pay full tuitions – and sometimes even pay a surcharge – they are a crucial means by which universities supplement undergraduate education. With institutions of higher education facing declining enrollment and state funding, these revenues are needed now more than ever.
The Ban May Act as a Broad Discouragement
The ban identifies seven Muslim-majority countries – Yemen, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, and Sudan. This limited scope leads the National Association of Scholars to argue that its effect would be relatively trivial.
And that is true – if the only accepted means of measuring impact is to tally the number of students from the banned countries seeking admission to U.S. institutions. However, there was already wide-spread concern among prospective international students that Trump’s policies will create a more dangerous and unwelcome environment for foreign students. For instance, eighty percent of Mexican students who participated in a 2016 survey of 40,000 students in 118 countries said that they would be less likely to attend a university in the United States during the Trump administration.
Other countries with competitive graduate programs, such as Germany, Australia, and Canada, are stepping up to seize the opportunity. At the same time, rising countries in the developing world, notably India, are sinking money into the development of domestic universities that could further reduce the number of students willing to brave the hassle of tightened border security and the increased potential of violent hate crimes against foreign students.
International Students Are Good-Will Ambassadors
When all is said and done, international students fulfill an important role in American society, helping to breakdown negative stereotypes and spread cultural awareness. They are frontline ambassadors, some of whom will remain to have a positive impact on our communities and others who will return to their home countries with a new perspective on the world.
The spirit of ingenuity that characterizes American democracy is an important export, helping other countries to find innovative solutions to problems ranging from engineering to medicine and crop management. Immigration bans not only hurt American universities economically; they may have long-term negative consequences on the world of ideas.