Harvard’s Ire Over Trump Visa Rule Shows High Stakes for Schools

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Every year, students from around the world pump about $40 billion into U.S. colleges and their home towns -- akin to spending Harvard University’s massive endowment -- while helping subsidize the cost of education for Americans nationwide.

But now the annual infusion is shrinking: Enrollment of freshmen from abroad is down 14% this fall, a drop set off by the coronavirus pandemic and spurred on by an onslaught of Trump administration proposals. Whether that money rebounds will heavily depend on next week’s election.

Colleges and universities have been sounding alarms in the final months of the presidential contest between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, pushing back on the government’s recent proposal to limit how long foreign students can stay. That move followed a threat over the summer to deport international students who attend classes online, as well as suggestions by administration officials to limit students from specific countries including China.

Harvard’s Ire Over Trump Visa Rule Shows High Stakes for Schools


“This is part of a pattern,” Brad Farnsworth, vice president of trade group the American Council on Education, said of moves to discourage international students. “It’s a cumulative impact.”

The worry among colleges is that another four years of Trump immigration policies could choke the inflow of foreign undergrads, who typically pay full price for tuition and spend money on campus and in the community. Institutions rely on top graduate students from overseas to propel research and innovation. The visitors also offer U.S. students perspectives and contacts around the world.

It’s too early to gauge how hard this year’s slump will hit budgets. By itself, the 14% drop in freshmen enrollment of international students would probably translate to less than $2 billion lost. But that toll would multiply if the trend sticks or worsens. Some schools say they’re adjusting acceptance of U.S. residents to offset the hit.

Trump’s rhetoric over the past four years has already altered perceptions of the U.S., dragging on enrollment from abroad before the pandemic struck. Even if Biden is elected and reverses course, “some of this stuff will take a long time to repair,” said Farnsworth.

Lucrative Industry

Educating international students is a lucrative business long dominated by U.S. schools. But they’re now facing mounting competition from English-speaking countries including Canada, the U.K. and Australia.

About 1.1 million international students poured into the U.S. during the 2018 to 2019 academic year, according to the most recent data available. They bring along enough money to rank as the country’s fifth-largest services export, according to Nafsa: Association of International Educators. At state schools, international undergraduate students typically pay non-resident rates, which helps keep costs down for locals. Foreign students also pay full freight at many private schools, funding financial breaks for poorer classmates.

Demand for that cash is likely to mount as colleges stomach costs from the pandemic. Since sending students home in March and granting refunds, American schools have borne expenses for deep cleaning, Covid testing and equipment to move classes online.

In July, as many schools prepared to teach classes digitally, the Trump administration proposed new guidelines that would have deported international students from the U.S. if they weren’t attending in person. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials rescinded the rule following lawsuits by Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and states. Some major universities eventually did shift online in August.

‘Cascading Consequences’

Since then, the government has proposed more regulations: capping foreign students’ time in the U.S. at four years with an unclear process for renewal, and further constricting the issuance of H1-B visas for skilled workers.

“We have to anticipate if there’s a second Trump administration, more of those types of policies will be put forward,” said Rachel Banks, Nafsa’s senior director for public policy and legislative strategy. Biden, in contrast, is “definitely more open to immigration, more open to America being that welcoming beacon.”

The proposal to limit stays drew more than 32,000 comments in a just a few weeks with schools and students lining up against it.

“The proposed rule would create negative and cascading consequences for U.S. research, scholarship and training,” Harvard President Lawrence Bacow wrote in one such letter.

Many universities use H1-B visas to hire professors and scholars to educate American students and conduct research. To head off the proposal, colleges joined the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other trade associations in suing the Department of Homeland Security and the Labor Department. They accused the government of trying to use the pandemic as a pretext to curtail immigration.

It’s so disruptive to U.S. innovation it could’ve been written by a foreign government, said Stuart Anderson, executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy, a non-partisan research organization focused on issues related to globalization. “The overall policy does not serve our national interest,” he said. “It’s simply meant to keep people out of the country, no matter how skilled.”

Homeland Security has said limits are needed on stays because it has become too difficult to monitor whether students are complying with the terms of their entry into the U.S. “The department is currently reviewing comments received during the public comment period and will take them into consideration when drafting the final rule,” a spokesman said in an emailed statement.

Still, even a Biden victory may not help colleges attract students for the next school year, given that many applicants will make decisions before January’s presidential inauguration.

“It grieves me that we have not been at all welcoming to international students in terms of the national political climate,” said Audrey Smith, vice president of enrollment at Smith College, a liberal arts college of about 2,500 undergrads. “They bring so much to our institutions and our country.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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