A Self-Inflicted Wound

Trump’s new rule on student visas will be costly to US higher education and technological leadership

The Trump administration’s new edict banning foreign university students enrolled in online programs from staying in the United States this fall could potentially disrupt the lives of hundreds of thousands of people while serving no compelling national purpose. In fact, the guidelines will impose an immediate drag on a US economy already battered by the COVID-19 crisis while weakening America’s longer-term technological leadership.

Earlier this week, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency issued new rules that will deny visas to foreign-born students enrolled at a university or college that is fully online for the fall semester. In other words, those foreign students already lawfully in the United States and in an online-only program must either depart the country or transfer to an institution with in-person instruction in order to remain in the country legally.

The Trump administration argues that it is merely enforcing the pre-COVID-19 regulations that were designed to protect against potential fraud by shadowy online-only schools. But, of course, the United States is still firmly in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic, and few sectors of the economy have been as disrupted as education. The new rules impose an unnecessary dilemma on college administrators by forcing them to choose between keeping their valued foreign students or protecting student health through online alternatives.

To make matters worse, the new rules come only weeks before students will begin reporting to American campuses for fall classes, either in person or online. Colleges will be forced to scramble to provide enough in-person classes to keep their foreign students enrolled. Those students who are currently abroad now find themselves in a state of limbo, not knowing if they can enroll for classes in the fall. And some currently in the United States may be forced to leave the country at short notice, yet not be able to return to their homes because of travel bans.

Beyond its toll on individuals, the new restrictions on foreign students will deal another body blow to a US higher education system that is already reeling from the COVID-19 shutdown. According to the Institute of International Education, 1,095,299 international students studied at US colleges and universities in 2019, representing more than 1 in 20 college students. For many universities, foreign students make up an even higher share of the student body, particularly in graduate programs.

Because foreign students typically pay the highest tuition rates, they have an outsize and positive impact on the finances of US colleges and universities, which in turn allows these institutions to charge American students lower tuition rates. In total, international students contributed $44.7 billion to the US economy and supported more than 458,290 jobs during the 2018–2019 academic year. That means that for every ten international students who choose to study in the United States, at least four domestic jobs are created either directly or indirectly, and the US economy benefits from additional spending of $408,100.

Besides the spending on their education, foreign students benefit the US economy through the skills and human capital they bring to the US labor force. About half of international students are enrolled in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs. They often enter the US workforce, through Optional Practical Training (OPT) and Curricular Practical Training (CPT) visas for recent graduates, J-1 visas for researchers and professors, or H-1B visas for high-skilled workers. Eventually, many obtain green cards, becoming legal permanent residents.

Foreign-born students make a huge contribution to America’s technological leadership in the world. Among foreign-born STEM doctorate students, 72 percent of graduates remain in the United States for at least 10 years after graduation; the highest rates are among Chinese and Indian graduates at 90 percent and 83 percent, respectively. Of all billion-dollar startups in the United States, 22 percent—including Zoom, Tesla, SpaceX, and Instagram—had at least one immigrant founder who first came to the country as an international student.

Because of the Trump administration’s shortsighted rule on student visas, the US higher education system will suffer yet another financial blow, weakening one of America’s most globally competitive sectors. Foreign-born students denied visas will now need to study in another country, taking their tuition, their talents, and their technological savvy elsewhere and leaving the United States a poorer place.

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