Trump administration policies toward refugees and immigrants, as well as a recent racially-charged shooting in Kansas, have some international students thinking twice about enrolling in American colleges and universities.
It's too soon to know if international applicants or enrollees will decline nationally. But uncertainty and fear linger over whether Trump's political actions, rhetoric and tweets will freeze the flow of international students.
Federal courts have blocked Trump's travel ban of people from seven majority-Muslim countries, but the White House has said it may issue a revised version as early as this week. That previous executive order spooked many international students, as we've reported.
More than a million international students attend American colleges and universities. More than 160,000 of them are from India, second only to China with more than 300,000.
While opposition to a travel ban by most U.S. colleges and universities is about academic freedom and diversity, it's also very much about protecting their budgets. Higher education in America relies, in part, on foreign students, who often pay full fare, helping universities to meet budgets and subsidize American students.
I reached out to Esther Brimmer, the executive director of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, a nonprofit dedicated to international education and exchange, for more on the issue. This interview has been edited for clarity.
What are you hearing? Are more students from India and China questioning whether Trump's America is a hospitable place?
We have been hearing from our members that there's a great deal of concern about studying in the United States, indeed that there are families who have seen these news reports. And it's a tragedy in that sense, because across the United States, colleges and universities want to welcome international students. But the recent news reports have raised concerns, as have recent actions by the administration.
What reasons are they giving? The administration's pledge to build a wall, the now-stalled travel ban? Is it all of it?
There are several sets of concerns. The first set was the executive orders that were promulgated by this administration. By banning people from the seven countries, everybody from those seven countries was affected. It meant that there [were] students and scholars who were split up from their families. And people saw this — we had scholars who might have gone to conferences, they might have gone home to see their families. We had cases where, you know, a mother who was a Ph.D. student went home, she wasn't able to get back to see her family. We had people going to conferences who all the sudden were stranded outside the United States — there were approximately 17,000 students from those countries affected.
And then even beyond that, concerns that this was evidence of a changing attitude in the United States towards international students. And while there's been some relief with the judicial action that has paused this, there are people who are worried that if they come to the United States this year, maybe they might be stranded in their second or third year, not able to complete their program.
Anecdotally, we're seeing reports that more international students are looking at blue states or to Europe or Canada — are there any numbers to back that up?
As you've indicated, this is actually an especially difficult time because colleges have issued their invitations to students to come to study. So students both in the United States and internationally are making their decisions.
Several educational associations — including ours — are working together to conduct a survey this spring to get more information from admissions officers so we can understand what's happening.
At the moment, the United States is the leading destination for international students, but we are losing market share. Increasingly, students are recognizing they do have choices — some students may choose to go to Australia or Canada or other countries that also have excellent institutions. We may be losing them for years. If they don't come this year, they're not coming for the next four if they're an undergraduate. A decision made now by an international student could have long-term consequences for that student, for the students who would have worked with that person, and for colleges and universities across the United States.
Foreign students often pay full fare, which helps subsidize U.S. students. Isn't there a potential huge economic impact of all this?
Indeed. While we stress the intellectual impact, there is an important economic impact as well. There are over 1 million international students and their families in the United States. And that group of people accounts for over 400,000 jobs and over $32 billion worth of economic activity in the United States.
Beyond the economic impact, what is the value of having international students on campus?
For decades, the United States has recognized that by having international students here, we benefit from the exchange of ideas from bringing together smart people which fosters innovation, which helps the United States economy. But also, international students affect our informal ambassadors. People around the world who have studied in the United States usually go home with a positive view of the United States — they learn more about the United States. And as they go on to their careers — and many of them have careers as diplomats and business leaders — they retain that positive view of the United States.