The Trump administration just attacked a shining light of our higher education system: international students. In doing so, the administration risks damaging much more than the hopes and dreams of hundreds of thousands of people from across the globe. The move will also hurt US students and our own standing in the world — for years to come, perhaps indefinitely.
On July 7, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced that it would not grant visas to international students taking online-only classes — in effect forcing US colleges and universities to offer in-person instruction regardless of the health risks involved. Even if schools begin the academic year with in-person classes, should those institutions opt to go fully online mid-semester, ICE will force international students to transfer schools or leave the country.
This latter requirement is especially perverse, given that students could be subject to travel restrictions in their own country and find themselves with nowhere to go. Moreover, forcing universities to hold classes in-person irrespective of the actual coronavirus situation uses the same flawed thinking favored by the president — that pretending things are okay makes them so. In contrast to that approach, last week the University of Southern California responded to LA’s soaring infection rates by reversing its original plan to hold some in-person classes.
There’s a lot more to be said on what this ruling ignores regarding scientific fact and human rights, but what really hurts is what it says about the Trump Administrations complete misunderstanding of the central value of international students across US universities. And of the value of US higher education to the rest of the world.
Last year, 1.1 million international students studied in the United States, making up a full 5.5 percent of all students in higher education in this country, according to an Open Doors 2019 report by the Institute for International Education. Contrary to stereotypes, these students aren’t just wealthy students from China or India here to earn a US degree and then go home, and they don’t just cluster in the coastal, liberal states. While the biggest recipients of international students last year were the states of California and New York, Texas came in third, hosting over 80,000 international students.
States like Illinois, Ohio, and Indiana also host tens of thousands of international students annually. These students hail from over 170 countries and attend everything from huge state schools to private liberal arts colleges. And they bring a tangible benefit to the schools they attend.
For one, with the exception of a few elite institutions, most US colleges don’t offer financial aid to international students — meaning those full-paying pupils defray tuition costs for their local peers. Rutgers University, for example, currently has 9,000 international students from 125 countries, representing 12 percent of its student body. Rutgers is a state school that charges New Jersey residents less than half what it charges out-of-staters. One way it keeps in-state tuition low and the quality of instruction high is with revenue from international students.
Beyond that, international students promote cross-cultural understanding. I still remember the lasting impression made on me from students who hailed from Kuwait, Barbados, Bermuda, and other countries I’d never visited. I’d go on to attend a wedding in Rio and tour Warsaw with friends from Brazil and Poland, respectively, whom I met in college. Even those who don’t make lasting friendships with international students benefit from the perspectives they bring to dining hall conversations and seminar discussions.
Those students don’t just give something to us. We give something to them. Some come from places where they are unable to access the quality of education and the facilities that make certain types of learning possible — and which we take for granted. Even for those who come from countries where a high-quality, and even free, education is an option, they face other constraints.
For one, the US educational system is unique in the flexibility it allows. In most of the world, you have to decide before college — or earlier — what you plan to study, whereas most US colleges grant you two years to make that critically important decision. Even in cases where US students need to apply to a particular field, like an engineering school, they must still take a breadth of classes. While “distribution requirements” may seem like a nuisance, they represent a holistic view of the college experience that really doesn’t exist elsewhere.
Beyond that, the US educational approach is largely treated as a contract between professors and students, and learning is a collaborative and engaging pursuit. That’s not the case in many countries, where the professor’s word is considered infallible, and class comments can sometimes be seen as a waste of valuable lecture time.
These are just some of the reasons students from around the world are willing to pay considerably more for a college degree in the US than what they’d likely pay in their home countries. These students don’t only come to study engineering, math, computer science, and business management, even if those are the most popular majors among them. They also study art, journalism, and education, bringing back to their countries not just their impressions of America but also values our country once loudly championed.
On the day ICE made its pronouncement, Lee Bollinger, president of New York’s Columbia University, where international students make up 21 percent of its undergraduates, wrote to members of the Columbia community about the Trump Administration’s restrictions of work visas for faculty and visiting students. Bollinger wrote:
“I cannot overstate how strongly I disagree with these new restrictions. They strike at the heart of how American universities function, at their basic character, and at the principles that have contributed to the enormous advances in knowledge over the past century especially. Our great research universities, like Columbia, are able to contribute to the public good precisely because of the commitment to be part of an international community of scholars and researchers. The search for knowledge transcends national boundaries, and the strengths of our universities depend on tapping into that collective quest.”
Bollinger’s email went on to point out that, right now, the transnational search for knowledge also includes the crucial effort to combat the pandemic. He points out the “harm caused by the misguided changes in the nation’s visa policy” because several US-based companies that are working to develop a COVID-19 vaccine actually employ scientists from other countries who are here on visas.
The Trump administration seems hell-bent on using every opportunity to shut its doors to anyone from another country. That Elon Musk, who just worked with NASA to put two American astronauts in flight from US soil, started out as an international student in the US — as did so many other Nobel prize winners, entrepreneurs, and even artists — seems not to matter to this ideological, other-bashing approach. As Senator Elizabeth Warren noted, the approach is simply “senseless, cruel, and xenophobic.”
Consider how cruel. Think of students in their last year at a four-year college, where they’ve formed lifelong bonds. They’re looking forward to spending their final, senior year with their classmates, even if the courses must be taught online. But rather, they will be forced to return to Germany, or Kenya, or New Zealand — as my daughter’s friends will be this year — taking online classes in the middle of the night, ending their education as far from their schoolmates and professors as they could possibly be. Consider the graduate student who has moved their entire family to the US to finish a doctoral degree, one that might be impossible to earn in their own country, and who now has no recourse.
But we already know that the concept of win-win is beyond Trump’s grasp. The idea that our schools would be considered the best in the world and would educate the brightest students from across the globe, that we could instill our highest values to others and have those values shared beyond our borders, apparently means that someone else is benefiting from what the US has to offer. In Trump’s winner-takes-all mind, that must mean we’re giving away the educational goods.
And yet, by pushing away international students, Trump is chipping away at one of the pillars that makes American education great and at our cultural soft-power that we export to the world. Already, 40 percent fewer student visas were awarded this year than four years ago, and students have begun to look elsewhere — going in increasing numbers to Canada and to Europe where ever more universities are offering instruction in English.
Today, we learned that Harvard and MIT plan to sue the Trump Administration over this misguided proclamation. Others are getting creative, reportedly offering one-credit courses at pop-up locations for international students to claim partial in-person learning on a technicality. Let’s wish them success. US higher education — with its US students and the many students it welcomes from around the world — depends on it.