Volume VIII, #13
Students come from abroad to attend an American university. They do well in school and find jobs that allowed them to stay in the U.S. They wind their way to building innovative, market-leading companies, creating tens of thousands of jobs and meaningful economic advantage for their adopted country. The story has been told time and time again. As of two years ago, approximately half of U.S. private companies valued at $1 billion or more (so-called “unicorns”) had founders who came to the U.S. as international students. The list includes entrepreneurs like Mario Schlosser (Oscar health insurance), Adam Neumann (WeWork), Michelle Zatlyn (CloudFlare), and Elon Musk (PayPal, Tesla, SpaceX). The draw of American colleges and universities on the best and the brightest from around the world has played a critical role in American innovation and economic growth.
"Man, I've been everywhere." - Johnny Cash
Unfortunately, the country to which international students have been flocking has long had a countervailing strain. Johnny Cash was a quintessential American who sang about American characters and experiences, typically the underdog, the criminal, the prisoner. But perhaps the most American thing he ever said or sang was "I've been everywhere," referencing Reno, Tulsa, Amarillo, Texarkana, and a hundred other places – none of them overseas. American isolationism has a history as long as the Republic itself. Blessed with docile neighbors and two seas to protect us from less docile countries, isolationist tendencies run in a straight line from Jefferson and Jackson to Lindbergh, to the World Series.
For the first time, this straight line is extending to America’s colleges and universities. What a difference 18 months makes. Last year marked the first decline in international student enrollment (7%) in over a decade. According to the Institute of International Education, 45% of U.S. colleges saw fewer international enrollments in the 2017-18 academic year. It’s not because our colleges and universities are turning their backs on the rest of the world. Far from it. As last week’s excellent Inside Higher Education series on pathway programs indicated, U.S. institutions are trying virtually anything to recruit more international students (while seeing limited success). University of New Hampshire just announced it would begin accepting the Chinese Gaokao test for admission, the first flagship to do so.
American colleges and universities are responsible for many of their problems, but not this one. Last year’s enrollment challenge was the direct result of early 2017 decisions by the Trump Administration like the travel ban and concomitant slowdown in the processing of student visas (and higher rejection rates) that have signaled a far less welcoming stance. As a result, the next Elon Musk is much less likely to make the same decision to attend a U.S. college or university.
This reversal is unprecedented and sudden; only six years ago Mitt Romney campaigned on stapling a green card to every international student’s diploma. It also stands in stark contrast to our English-language rivals for international students. Canada recently announced its second consecutive year of 20%+ gains. Top Canadian universities like University of Toronto are eliminating international student fees, and the country is making it easier to gain work experience upon graduation and further streamlining visa processing. Australia has done the same. Even the UK in the throes of Brexit is making it easier for students from China and 10 other countries to obtain visas. While our competition is moving forward rapidly, America is moving backward even faster. Maybe this explains why President Trump is so angry at Canada.
Or maybe not, because this Administration doesn’t seem to care. What’s really scary is that the worst is yet to come. The Administration’s recent actions have led to awful images of immigrant children in cages that have gone viral and global. Add to this a trade war with China and a new rule announced in a Senate hearing earlier this month (and posted to the Judiciary Committee site at the URL “China’s campaign to infiltrate and exploit U.S. academia”) that shortens student visas for Chinese graduate students from five years to one year in certain areas of study. And now a Supreme Court ratification of the travel ban, reminding global audiences of Trump’s initial salvo. This is all in the last month; not even September 2001 was worse for international education. To top it off, there’s word of a new general crackdown on student visas ahead of the midterm election. Says Wojtek Chodzko-Zajko, Dean of Graduate Studies at UIUC (and a former international student himself): For decades it’s been a “no-brainer” for the best international students to come to the U.S., “but now, they have to decide if they really want to come here.”
It seems implausible that, in the coming years, hundreds of thousands of Chinese students won’t change their vector of study. The upshot could be a 20-30% decline in international student enrollment for the 2019-20 school year. This Administration is risking enrollment, tuition revenue, and good jobs at red state schools like University of Tulsa (24% international), Andrews University in Michigan (17%), and Lindenwood University in Missouri (12%). A collapse in international student enrollment could be the breaking point for hundreds of American colleges and universities. Meanwhile, the Department of Education (ED) is MIA on an issue that is likely to significantly weaken the sector, creating future problems that will require government attention and resources.
The more fundamental result – and one that raises the same question of the Departments of Labor (DOL) and Commerce – could be a kneecapping of American competitiveness for a generation. It’s not just technology mavens and entrepreneurs. For every Elon Musk, our colleges and universities graduate tens of thousands of talented managers, scientists, and academics from the around the world, giving America a huge economic boost. Many of these students are already well on their way to choosing Australia, Canada, the UK, or even Germany or China.
While the White House concocts more ways to demonize immigrants for short-term political gain (or perhaps distraction), I remain hopeful that some department or agency puts forward a competing narrative, which is that the economic challenges perceived by Trump’s base have much less to do with immigration than a lack of friction-free education and training pathways to good jobs in growing sectors of the economy. (In the UK, other centers of power within the government have so far stymied Prime Minister May’s Brexit instinct to include international student numbers in immigration caps.) For example, rather than focusing solely on government cost reduction, the proposed merger of ED and DOL could be accompanied by a strategy akin to the Department of Talent suggested by Jamie Merisotis in America Needs Talent – “that the federal government is serious and strategic about its interest in developing, harnessing, and deploying talent.” It would be refreshing to see ED stand up for talent – i.e., welcoming international talent to our colleges and universities while recommitting ourselves to develop our own – as opposed to re-litigating yesterday’s battles (e.g., state authorization, gainful employment, protecting failed accreditors like ACICS) that won’t move the needle on the caliber of America’s workforce.
"Many states and kingdoms have lost their dominions by severity and an unjust jealousy. I remember none that have been lost by kindness and a generous confidence." - John Dickinson, 1765
Stephen Miller and his fellow geniuses at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue are right about one thing. In immigration, someone is taking advantage. But they’ve got it backwards: by attracting the best and brightest from the around the world, the U.S. has been getting an economic free ride in terms of talent.
America's extended global leadership has been a direct product of its ability to attract global talent. We can take the rest of the world for granted (and continue to toss off lines like “Man, I’ve been everywhere”) so long as top talent – particularly in key economic growth areas like technology – continues to come to our shores. Rendering American colleges and universities less attractive to international students puts the nation at risk. It’s not inconceivable that one of Trump’s legacies will be losing our spot as the top destination for international students to a country less than one-tenth our size (Australia).
As we celebrate America’s birthday next week, this issue deserves our full attention, starting with all of us in higher education, and everyone who first came to this country as an international student (of which group I’m a proud member). President Trump has already trashed America’s moral leadership, ostensibly in the name of economic gain. But these developments – both rivals pushing ahead and a reckless disregard of the impact of an isolationist approach to immigration on American higher education and talent – demonstrate that he’s also intent on trashing America’s economic leadership.