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October 3, 2020

The great American backslide


October 3, 2020

The writer is an independent education researcher and consultant. She has a PhD in Education from Michigan State University.

The US is home to most of the world’s best and most prestigious universities, and college application season for 2021 is upon us. Last year, there were numerous reports of the Trump administration making it more difficult for, or refusing international students in graduate school programs, even at its most prestigious universities, permission to work (and eventually settle) in the US after graduating. These are precisely the kind of highly skilled immigrants the Trump administration claims it wants, yet its actions show otherwise.

Then, earlier in this summer, as the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic was cresting in many countries, American colleges were deciding how they could conduct their fall and spring semesters this academic year – on campus, online or some way in between. In the midst of this debate, the Trump administration announced that international students at colleges and universities that would opt for online classes will have to leave the country for the duration they do not have on campus classes.

A few days ago, on September 25, the Trump administration announced its intention to change student visa rules again. Previously, students could legally stay in the US as long as their university certifies them as enrolled students, even if the date on their visa had expired. PhD students in particular, whose programs can take anywhere from 4 to 10 years, often have to make use of this provision. This provision also allows students to maintain their legal residency status if they are unable to find a job immediately after graduation. The new changes would restrict students to remain in the US for only four years, with the possibility of applying for an extension, whose outcome would be highly uncertain.

Students from countries designated state sponsors of terrorism by the US (Iran, Sudan, Syria, North Korea) and countries whose students have an overstay rate of greater than 10 percent (a list that includes around 60 countries) will see the validity of their visas further reduced to only two years. That is just enough to graduate from an associate bachelor’s or master’s programs.

The message to international students is clear: Come to the US, graduate within four years, but leave immediately thereafter, maybe with a degree or maybe without. Predictably, the effect of these changes has been chilling.

The cost of tuition fee of a four-year bachelor’s program at most top-100 national universities for international students is around $50,000-70,000 a year. Add in the cost of living and you are looking at a total price tag of $250,000-400,000 for the entire program, depending on location. Understandably, when international students invest this much in their education, many do so looking beyond college and plan to work in the US, for a variety of reasons like getting US work experience, recouping the cost of their education, or to eventually settle in the US.

For host countries, in this case the US, the economic case for retaining skilled and educated international students is quite straightforward: Let other countries spend their tax revenues and resources on schooling and bringing up children, let them come for higher education while paying higher tuition fees at its universities, and when they graduate and are about to become productive, pluck them off by enticing them into staying. The host country gets a worker without investment, while the home country gets to bemoan its brain drain.

Some of the best years of my life were the ones I spent in graduate school in the US. It was a time of learning, intellectual growth, new experiences and exposure to new values, ideas and a diversity of people that changed me for the better. That change flows both ways. In 2018, around 6,300 students (12.6 percent) of Michigan State University’s 50,000 students came from 140 countries. While many colleges are located in major urban areas, a great many are situated in small towns that popped up around those colleges. When such large groups of international students live as part of smaller communities, they change their character for the better, creating small, liberal bubbles where locals would otherwise not have the opportunity to experience such diversity.

Colleges and their students, including international students, are valued as major drivers of their local economies. In 2018, international students contributed $45 billion to the US economy in the form of spending on retail, dining and transportation alone (excluding tuition fees). In the America outside the DC Beltway, and smaller communities in particular, they are ambassadors and representatives of their home countries.

I am grateful for my American experiences and remain a well-wisher of the American people. That is why it is so painful to see the regression, this backslide of the valuation of diversity, talent and expertise, and the growth of boorish ignorance and hostile nationalist pride. Soon after Trump won the 2016 elections, a good American friend of mine messaged me to say it is a good thing I had returned to Pakistan when I did, because things were turning ugly. At the time, I thought this may be an exaggeration by someone not used to seeing social and cultural upheaval, as we are in Pakistan. Almost four years of an administration that has consistently shown that, when given a set of options, it is sure to choose the one most hostile to minorities, communities of color, immigrants and visitors, I stand corrected.

Meanwhile, state universities have seen significant cutbacks in state support since the financial crisis in 2008. They see international students, who they charge multiple times the tuition fee of in-state students, as a means to cover the shortfall. Their PR departments are in damage control mode, trying to contain the fallout from the administration’s statements and actions.

This unwelcoming attitude is reflected in the number of international students coming to the US since the current administration took office. According to a report by the Institute of International Education (IIE), in 2016-17 (the last academic year before the Trump administration) the US had about 1,080,000 international students. In the chilled climate of the following year, in 2017-18, that number grew by only 1.5 percent. The year after that, in 2018-19, it grew by an almost imperceptible 0.05 percent!

Pakistan’s share in this number in 2018-19 is only around 8,000 students (0.7 percent), ranking it at #22, but at a rate of 5.6 percent year-over-year its share is one of the fastest growing. Pakistanis’ long-standing conviction that a good education will lead to a better life is, to me, our culture’s most redeeming value that leaves me with hope for a better future.

You may ask: if the stagnation in the number of international students in the US is not a secular trend, what countries are picking up the slack? Over the same time period, 2016 to 2018, Canada saw a growth of more than 36 percent in its international student population. Even the UK, while in the throes of Brexit and where international student numbers have plateaued in the previous decade, saw a more than nine percent increase in this period. Talent is globally mobile, seeks out economic opportunities, quality of life and places it feels valued and welcomed and votes with its feet.

According to CNN’s poll of polls, 43 percent of Americans are prepared to vote for the incumbent Trump. This stacks up with the solid 35 percent floor of support Trump has been enjoying at even the lowest moments of his presidency. If Trump wins in November, we can expect a deepening and entrenchment of these policies. In 2024, that could leave the vast stretches of America outside its liberal urban bubbles a fearful and suspicious version of its former open self, receding from the world and unrecognizable from the country I once knew. If he loses, prospective students may hope to see at least a partial unwinding of his administration's policies.

However, whether Trump wins or loses this November, the last few years the US has shown the world that almost half of its people, more than a small fringe, are not too bothered by Trump’s isolationist worldview and the policies that spring from it. Both the world and the US are poorer for it.