Andres Oppenheimer

Huge decline in foreign students is bad news for America’s future | Opinion

IMAGE DISTRIBUTED FOR SYRACUSE UNIVERSITY - Graduates settle in before the start of Syracuse University 159th Commencement ceremony in Syracuse, N.Y., Sunday, May 12, 2013. (Kevin Rivoli / AP Images for Syracuse University)
IMAGE DISTRIBUTED FOR SYRACUSE UNIVERSITY - Graduates settle in before the start of Syracuse University 159th Commencement ceremony in Syracuse, N.Y., Sunday, May 12, 2013. (Kevin Rivoli / AP Images for Syracuse University) AP

President Trump’s anti-immigration policies are hurting America in many ways, but one of their most negative - and least talked about - side-effects is the steep decline in foreign students enrolling in U.S. colleges and universities.

According to newly released State Department data, the number of U.S. visas issued for foreign students fell from 677,928 in 2015, the year before Trump was elected, to 389,579 in 2018. That number - part of about 1 million foreign students currently in the United States - represents a whopping 42 percent decline in new foreign students since Trump took office.

It’s a disastrous trend for America’s future, for reasons that go far beyond the estimated $39 billion a year that foreign students contribute to the U.S. economy, or the 455,000 jobs they support in the country, according to the National Association of International Educators.

Foreign students have not only been one of America’s most lucrative service export industries, but one of the most important ones for America’s scientific research and innovation future.

You don’t need to do a Google search of the number of foreign-born U.S. Nobel Prize winners who studied at U.S. universities to realize how much foreign students have contributed to the U.S. leadership in most disciplines. Just go to any U.S. university science lab, and you will be amazed by the percentage of foreign-born PhD’s you will see.

My wife happens to be a scientist at the University of Miami’s Neurology Department, and - like in most major U.S. universities - more than 70 percent of her fellow PhD co-workers are Chinese, European, or Latin American. Just as gardeners, construction workers and other immigrants on the lower end of the labor totem, post-graduate knowledge workers do research jobs that many American science graduates don’t want to do, because they can make much more money in private sector Pharmaceutical or Engineering companies.

“Unfortunately, international student enrollments are on the decline because of long visa delays, denials and unwelcoming anti-immigrant rhetoric,” Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D, NY,) chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told me in an e-mail. “When we restrict gifted, hardworking young people from coming here to study, we lose out and their talent and all the benefits they bring are redirected to other countries.”

In the short run, foreign students make are a big plus because they are one of the most profitable U.S. service export industries. Foreign students also help improve the educational experience of U.S. students, and help subsidize the tuition of American students, because most foreigners pay for their own tuition fees.

In the medium term, the decline in foreign students could be “devastating” for America’s leadership in science and technology, says University of Miami President Julio Frenk.

“Many of the most talented foreign students stay here to do post-graduate studies, and then join the scientific research community that produces America’s biggest scientific discoveries,” Frenk told me. “They are the big scientists who have helped give the United States its competitive advantage.”

In the long term, foreign students also help improve U.S. ties with other countries, because later in life they often become business or political leaders in their home countries. “They have lived in the United States, they have known America’s culture, and they often become the best U.S. ambassadors abroad,” Frenk says.

Among the reasons for the U.S. decline in foreign students are new administrative hurdles imposed by the Trump administration, an increase in student application fees, and fears of anti-immigrant racial violence by some foreign students, especially from Muslim countries. China is by far the biggest source of foreign students in U.S. colleges, followed by India, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Canada and Vietnam.

Canada, among other countries, is going out its way to woo foreign students. The number of international students in Canadian colleges rose from 492,545 in 2017 to 572,415, according to Canadian government figures. The United Kingdom announced recently that it will re-introduce two-year post-study work visas for international students, as a way to attract talents.

Summing up, America is paying a heavy price for Trump’s campaign to court xenophobic voters with blanket anti-immigration measures. It’s a stupid policy which is already having terrible results.


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