Following the recent debacle concerning international students and their ability to study in the U.S., I wanted to pen down my personal thoughts on the issue.
It is well-known that international students are money-making machines for the United States. As a collective, we contributed over $41 billion to the U.S. economy in the 2018-19 academic year. This ranks as the nation’s fifth largest services export industry, ahead of business travel and telecommunications equipment.
The relationship between international students and the U.S. has always been a win-win. For the privilege of being educated in the land of the free, we pay handsomely. In return, we are afforded amazing opportunities.
For universities, the benefits are many. International students typically pay full tuition, keep classes full, and increase patent output (which boosts rankings).
The economy benefits too. International students graduate and get high paying jobs in fields like technology. They pioneer research. And they start companies. A 2018 study by the National Foundation for American Policy found that nearly a quarter of the billion-dollar startups in the U.S. had a founder who was an international student. Think of companies like SpaceX ($36B), Stripe ($35B), Robinhood ($8B) and Cloudflare ($8B). All were started by international students.
The point of all this is that international students create immense value for the American economy and its people.
But lately, the number of international students in the U.S. has been declining. In the 2018-19 school year, U.S. colleges reported a decline in international undergraduates, ending 12 consecutive years of growth.
This should warrant concern. International students paying full tuition help keep universities financially afloat by subsidizing American students on financial aid. Tech companies rely on international talent to build innovative technologies. Even a small drop in the number of international students will cost the American economy billions of dollars.
The COVID-19 pandemic is not helping. The American Council on Education estimates that international enrollment will drop 25% in the coming academic year, as students face uncertainty over visa approvals and the status of Fall classes. If students can't be on campus, many of the intangibles that come with an American education vanish, and that seventy-thousand-dollar price tag per year suddenly feels a lot steeper.
University administrators are worried. Every lost international student “represents a four-year hit. Those students would typically be enrolled for four years, so that’s a negative on the balance sheet for several years” said Daniel Hurley, chief of the Michigan Association of State Universities.
But there is a larger issue at hand. It’s no secret that the U.S. has not handled this pandemic well. Famed economist Joseph Stiglitz has said that this crisis has left the U.S. looking like a “third world” country. The political climate has already become more hostile to international students. If this trajectory continues, will parents be able to justify the monumental expenses that come with sending a child to the U.S.?
Despite this, I’m an advocate of the American way of education. My four years at Duke have provided me with ample opportunities both in and out of the classroom, and have facilitated immense personal growth.
The good news for colleges is that this pandemic provides the perfect backdrop for making the international student experience better. As Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Charles Duhigg puts it, crises should be used as opportunities to remake organizational habits, because it is during these times that habits are most malleable.
Christina Paxson, the President of Brown University hit the nail on the head when she said that “the reopening of college campuses in the fall should be a national priority”. But I urge institutions worried about their international student enrollment numbers to go one step further.
Realize that being a student in college is tough. Being an international student in college is even tougher. But being an international student dealing with a global pandemic is unprecedented.
Colleges should use the malleability this pandemic affords as a launching pad for change – to give these students the experience they want (and deserve), so that the productive exchange between international students and America can continue for years to come.