We work extensively with students on F-1 and J-1 visa—international students who are understandably feeling the effects of the uncertainty the Trump Administration has created. The future of legal as well as undocumented immigrants in the United States is unclear, as are the consequences and of the steps Trump has taken to reduce America’s role in the world. The administration’s decisions have created problems for higher learning institutions as they try to address their students’ immediate and long-term concerns, and in the process, some problems of their own.
“America remains the most welcoming nation in the world to international students,” says Michael McRobbie, President of Indiana University. “Last year, more than 1 million foreign students studied in the U.S. At my institution, Indiana University, we welcomed nearly 9,000 students from 144 countries in 2017, one of the largest cohorts of foreign students in the U.S.”
Still, those numbers are worrying. “The national trend … is one of slowed growth in the number of new international students, which declined across the nation by nearly 10,000 students, or 3 percent, in 2016—the first recorded drop in 12 years.”
The National Science Foundation confirms those trends. In the last quarter of 2016, the number of international students enrolled at the undergraduate level dropped 2.2 percent, and 5.5 percent at the graduate level. According to Inside Higher Ed’s Elizabeth Redden:
The declines, if they were to continue, could have negative implications for U.S. competitiveness and the health of American graduate science and engineering programs, which are heavily populated by international students. In 2015, international students made up 36 percent of all science and engineering graduate students in the U.S. and received more than half of all doctoral degrees awarded in computer science, economics, engineering, and mathematics and statistics.
McRobbie believes the decline, if it continues, could hurt the U.S. in a number of ways. “During the 2016-17 academic year, the more than 1 million students studying at U.S. colleges and universities contributed nearly $37 billion and supported more than 450,000 jobs to the U.S. economy,” he says, but he also believes in the perspective that international students give American-born students on their campus. “They contribute to an educational environment that prepares our students to be ‘globally ready’ for an interconnected and competitive future,” he says.
How do educators face this new, more anxious climate? According to Stephen Dunnett and Amir Reza, who work in the International Student offices at University of Buffalo-SUNY and Babson College respectively, “Institutions must double down on pragmatic supports for students already on campus. We must make our campuses more hospitable in real ways that matter, so international students will have a positive and rewarding academic and social experience, and carry that memory–which will last well beyond the term of any presidential administration or academic career–back home.” That doesn’t mean insulating international students from the fractious marketplace of ideas that they encounter, but giving them context, the vocabulary, and a support network of peers to help them better participate in—and understand—it.
Dunnett and Reza also suggest that higher education address the cost of an education, which has become prohibitive for domestic as well as international students. They write
If the U.S. is to remain competitive, its institutions of higher education must contain or even reduce costs, increase value, and try to diversify their source countries. In some cases this means providing scholarships to students from developing countries. In other cases, it means identifying promising new markets, and taking a disciplined, long-term approach to building a recruitment pipeline.
The anxiety that the Trump Administration has created with respect to America’s relationship with the rest of the world is a problem, but for higher education, it is also a backhanded opportunity. The situation creates a context for colleges and universities to think about how to make their institutions more appealing to international students at many levels. As the structural advantages schools in the U.S. once enjoyed become less certain, institutions have good reasons to take steps to ensure all of their students are part of the international conversation.