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Trump’s Immigration Order Is a Major Blow to American Universities

Of America’s 975,000 international students, roughly 16,000 have been prohibited by executive order from entering (or re-entering) the country.

By Jared Keller


Students walk across the University of Michigan campus. (Photo: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

When President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Friday temporarily prohibiting citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States, he accidentally dealt a massive blow to one of America’s most precious resources: its colleges.

It’s no secret that international students, lured abroad by coastal research universities in New York and California (and the promise of a work visa that would allow them to spin their talents into profit), are transforming America’s higher education. The near-million international students who travel to the U.S. to study account for almost 5 percent of America’s higher-ed populace — and their numbers have been rapidly on the rise over the last decade, according to the Institute for International Education.

(Chart: Migration Policy Institute)

This uptick in international students has been fueled by the growing middle classes in China, Saudi Arabia, India, and South Korea, whose aggressive focus on generational investment have transformed them into fertile sources of tuition for increasingly cash-strapped universities. Nearly 72 percent of international student funding came from non-U.S. sources, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

“Capacity matters,” IIE president Allan Goodman toldTheAtlantic in a 2015 interview. “Other countries can’t accommodate all their students. India and China have trouble finding seats for all their qualified students.”

But of those 975,000 international students, roughly 16,000 have been prohibited by executive order from entering (or, in some cases, re-entering) the U.S., the Chronicle of Higher Educationreports. Assuming an average college tuition of $33,500, that’s more than $540 million slipping through the fingers of the higher education community. Yes, it’s a small sum compared to the $31 billion in Pell grants American universities received in 2014. But that’s just in terms of college funding: According to a report from the MPI, international students contributed more than $30.5 billion to the U.S. economy.

And it’s not just students who Trump has alienated from the American experience; it’s professors and researchers as well, both vital assets to the research labs and academic institutions that help shape the economies of university cities like Boston and New York. And while some scientists who fled persecution in countries such as Iran and Syria have been spared diplomatic limbo thanks to the courts, academic institutions are scrambling to ensure that they maintain their hold on some of the brightest minds on the planet, advising against international travel and, in some cases, offering mild sanctuary protections.

International students contributed more than $30.5 billion to the U.S. economy.

The schools have good reason to panic: Foreign-born workers are disproportionately fueling economic growth in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics sectors, according to a recent National Bureau of Economic Research working paper. “U.S. states and localities that attract more high-skilled foreign labor see faster rates of growth in labor productivity,” economists Gordon H. Hanson and Matthew J. Slaughterdiscovered. “Metropolitan areas that historically employed more H-1B workers enjoyed larger bumps in patenting when Congress temporarily expanded the program between 1999 and 2003.”

Let’s not understate the importance of America’s temporary immigrant scientists. Even as international students increasingly come to the U.S. to specialize in business, engineering, and computer sciences, per the MPI, the extra boost of H1-B visas helps technology companies attract high-skilled workers. After a scare like Trump’s executive order, it’s unlikely foreign-born workers will aspire to risk detention and harassment just to bring their talents here — a trend that, like universities, Silicon Valley companies are desperately trying to avoid.

But perhaps more troubling than the economic cost to American higher ed is the cultural one: Of those 16,000 students, nearly 11,388 came from Iran to study, another blight on a historically shaky relationship being tested by Trump’s immigration ban.

“The IIE believes that the presence of international students in American schools provides U.S. students with exposure to different cultures and ideas enlivening classroom discussions with their perspectives and experiences,” Laura McKenna wrote in The Atlantic. “This exposure also has practical value, especially when only a fraction of American college students study abroad; sitting in a classroom with a Brazilian or a Saudi might be the only exchange that Americans students have with people from other countries and the only opportunity to develop skills critical to a globalized workforce.”

(Graph: Pacific Standard/Institute of International Education)

In response, the resistance, once the provenance of Frankfurt Schoolers on college campuses, has come to university administrations. The Chronicle of Higher Educationnotes that institutions such as Columbia University, Wesleyan University, and the University of Notre Dame have released statements rejecting the Trump administration’s blanket ban; more than 7,000 U.S. faculty members (and 37 Nobel Laureates) have signed an independent petition rebuking the president. And some administrators, like their fellow officials in sanctuary jurisdictions across the country, are outright refusing to disclose the immigration status of students: The University of Michigan, in reaction to Trump’s executive order, announced on Sunday that, while the school “complies with federal requirements associated with managing its international programs … [it] does not share sensitive information like immigration status.”

But all of this is, well, moot. Consider this delightful anecdote uncovered by the Washington Post, from the week after Election Day, capturing a strange conversation between Trump and Steve Bannon:

Last November, for instance, Trump said he was concerned that foreign students attending Ivy League schools have to return home because of U.S. immigration laws.

“We have to be careful of that, Steve. You know, we have to keep our talented people in this country,” Trump said. He paused. Bannon said, “Um.”

“I think you agree with that,” Trump said. “Do you agree with that?”

Bannon was hesitant.

“When two-thirds or three-quarters of the CEOs in Silicon Valley are from South Asia or from Asia, I think…” Bannon said, not finishing the sentence. “A country is more than an economy. We’re a civic society.”

As protests against Trump’s executive order raged across the country this weekend, the president named Bannon to the National Security Council, excluding the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of National Intelligence. Take from that what you will — but if you’re a university administrator, consider it a sign of things to come.