By Benjamin Wermund
April 23, 2018
American universities are losing out to colleges in other countries in the race to enroll international students, and they’re blaming President Donald Trump.
Foreign competitors are taking advantage of Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric, aggressively recruiting the types of foreign students and faculty who would have typically come to the United States for their higher education. The data already show that U.S. colleges are falling behind foreign competitors during the Trump era.
New foreign student enrollment in the U.S. dropped by 3 percent during the 2016-17 school year, and that decline is projected to double this school year, data show. At the same time, universities overseas are seeing increases as high as the double digits. The decline in foreign students enrolling in American colleges is just the latest evidence of Trump’s immigration policies shutting doors in America. The U.S. is also granting fewer visitor visas to people from around the world.
Trump is responsible for the decline in student enrollment, U.S. universities argue — especially his travel ban, which goes before the Supreme Court on Wednesday. Dozens of higher education groups wrote in an amicus brief for that case that Trump’s travel ban is a “clarion message of exclusion to millions” that harms universities’ ability to enroll international students and recruit top faculty.
Overseas, they’re gloating. “We don’t actually need to be negative about the American academy, as President Trump is doing more damage to ‘brand America’ on his own than any competitor country ever could,” Phil Honeywood, the CEO of Australia’s international education association, told POLITICO.
“There is no doubt that President Trump’s much-publicized antagonism toward Muslims and migrants has sent out negative messages to students who would otherwise have America at the top of their list as a study destination,” said Honeywood. Australia — long one of America’s top competitors — has seen big jumps in students enrolling from Muslim majority countries, such as Malaysia and Indonesia and in the Middle East, he said.
And it’s not just Australia, which saw a 12 percent increase in international students last year. Universities in Canada, China, New Zealand, Japan and Spain all posted double-digit increases in international enrollment, according to data from the nonprofit Institute of International Education.
Meanwhile, the U.S. decline tracked by the IIE was the first time that number had dropped in the 12 years the group collected such data. While the 2017-18 data are not yet available, the decline was projected to more than double, based on the findings of a separate online enrollment survey IIE conducted in October.
Universities say they need to continue to attract the world’s brightest students for America to maintain its scientific edge. They argue foreign students often become important economic drivers, pointing to famous foreign-born entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, who grew up in South Africa and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. International students can also help with the bottom line, since they often pay full freight, and some universities charge them more to attend.
“Where the United States retreats, there’s a vacuum, and other countries will rush to fill it,” University of California President Janet Napolitano, who served as Homeland Security secretary in the Obama administration, told POLITICO. “American education has always led the world — and it still leads the world, and it should lead the world. But we are leading the world in an atmosphere where the White House, at least, is sending a very kind of ‘stay away’ message — and that’s a challenge.”
The university groups wrote in the Supreme Court brief that since Trump signed the travel ban, international students have expressed concerns about coming to the U.S. to study, while faculty have turned down jobs and foreign scholars have pulled out of American academic conferences.
“Foreign students, faculty and researchers come to this country because our institutions are rightly perceived as the destinations of choice compared to all others around the globe,” the brief said. The president’s proclamation “altered those positive perceptions with the stroke of a pen,” it said.
In the case, the Supreme Court will hear arguments that Trump overstepped his authority in issuing an order limiting visas to eight countries, six of which are majority Muslim. Among the questions the justices are expected to consider in the case, which was brought by the state of Hawaii and the leader of a Muslim group there, is whether the president’s order violated the Constitution’s ban on establishment of religion by targeting Muslims.
The administration has contended the travel ban is a necessary national-security step, and government attorneys have argued it’s not related to Trump’s vows on the campaign trail to institute a Muslim ban.
It’s not just the travel ban. The Trump administration is considering restricting visas for Chinese citizens, which could hurt Chinese students studying at American universities. Administration officials portray the possible restrictions, as well as steep tariffs, as a response to alleged intellectual property theft.
American colleges, meanwhile, have aggressively pushed for lawmakers to find a way to preserve the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protected from deportation and gave work permits to undocumented individuals brought to the country as children. Trump scrapped the program.
Foreign universities have watched the political climate shift and are pouncing on the opportunity to lure away would-be students and faculty.
“At a time of closing borders and closing minds, students from around the world are choosing Canada,” a group of Canadian universities boasted late last year.
Canada saw an 18 percent jump in international enrollment in 2016. New Zealand saw the biggest boost — a 34 percent increase. International enrollment jumped 25 percent in Spain, 13 percent in Japan and 11 percent in China.
“Ten years ago, China wasn’t even on anyone’s radar screen as a competitor,” said Rachel Banks, director of public policy at NAFSA: Association of International Educators, America’s main international education lobbying group. “They were not active. They were not aggressive at all.”
China has set a goal of enrolling half a million students by the year 2020, and the nation is on a path to exceed that goal early, she said. International students have been a big part of that growth.
Many of these countries long have had aggressive strategies to recruit internationally and have built immigration policies around those efforts.
Australia, for example, allows foreign students to stick around for 18 months after graduation to gain experiential training. Graduates in high-need occupations are able to stay and work for as long as four years. And the country has a path to permanent residency for all foreign graduates.
And they’re not just targeting students.
French President Emmanuel Macron last year announced France would give four-year grants to professors, graduate students and other researchers willing to work on climate change research. Just last month, Canada announced its universities had successfully poached 24 faculty members from colleges in other nations. More than half of them came from American universities, including Harvard, Brown and Duke.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been spending time in Silicon Valley, trying to convince startups there that Canada might be a more friendly place as the U.S. continues to restrict immigration, including through additional scrutiny of work visas.
“That’s pretty telling,” Banks said.
American universities have tried to counter the narrative. Colleges have written letters expressing their continued support for international education, and some have even offered assistance, such as additional housing, for international students. They’ve lobbied aggressively against restrictive immigration policies and entered court battles. The University of California is among the plaintiffs challenging Trump’s decision to scrap DACA.
“The key for us is to be able to still attract the best and the brightest from all over the world,” University of Southern California President C.L. Max Nikias told POLITICO. “That has been part of the strength of who we are as a country.”
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