Submitted by Ryan Craig on January 27, 2017 - 3:00am
My 6-year-old son, Zev, is obsessed with Russia. Not because of the interference in our recent presidential election, but simply because it looms so large on the world map that hangs in his bedroom. His kindergarten teacher tells us he won’t stop talking about Russia, and his favorite YouTube video is the classic SCTV skit “What Fits Into Russia,” in which host Feliks Dzerzhinsky fits Argentina, Australia and Texas into Russia, not even covering all of the “beauty” of the Ukraine! “So long, Lone Star State! You look like a tiny star set against the vast colossal sky of Mother Russia (maniacal laugh).”
Kids are impressionable. Just as Zev is blown away by the size of Mother Russia, millions of college-age kids around the world are blown away by the archetypal idea of American college, as developed and celebrated in American popular culture, and even more by our famous university brands. As a result, there are now over one million international students enrolled at U.S. colleges and universities -- a figure that has doubled in 15 years.
If President Trump wants to put America first, and do so by promoting American products and American jobs, higher education is a huge opportunity. There are five million students at colleges and universities outside their home countries -- a number that’s projected to grow to eight million within a decade.
Although it may seem counterintuitive in this radically new policy environment where our borders appear to be closing, the answer lies at the intersection of prioritizing job creation and our new president -- a successful hotelier -- understanding the difference between students (guests) and immigrants.
In Australia, international students represent about 30 percent of total enrollment. In the U.K., it’s about 20 percent. Even Canada is at 11 percent. But the one million international students currently enrolled at U.S. colleges and universities represent only 5 percent of the total. And we are falling farther behind. In 2000, 23 percent of all international students were in the U.S. In 2012, it was only 16 percent. We are punching below our weight -- and way below our reputation.
The economic benefits of educating students from other countries are clear. NAFSA: the Association of International Educators estimates that three U.S. jobs are created or supported for every seven international students -- a total of 340,000 jobs in 2013-14. These jobs aren’t only for overeducated academics, but in sectors such as transportation, accommodation, food service, telecommunications, health care and insurance.
In the 2015-16 academic year, international students contributed approximately $33 billion to the U.S. economy. So if the U.S. were to serve as many international students proportionally as Canada, we would add more than 400,000 jobs. Doing as well as the U.K. would add 1.2 million new jobs. Reaching Australian levels would add two million new jobs -- greater potential than any of the other “export” industries being talked about. And we’d do even better than that if we took full advantage of our reputation as the global higher education leader.
While a handful of universities -- mostly in large, coastal urban areas -- have achieved 20 percent international as a percentage of total enrollment, only 5 percent of U.S. colleges and universities account for nearly 70 percent of all international enrollments; 95 percent of institutions have a lot of room for growth.
On a statewide basis, only a few have approached Canadian levels -- Washington, D.C., is at 15 percent, Massachusetts 13 percent, New York 10 percent, Washington 9 percent, Rhode Island 8 percent. Illinois, Connecticut and Hawaii are at 7 percent, and the rest of the country is at 6 percent or below, including large states with international reputation: California and Texas at 6 percent, Florida at 4 percent. And most of the Midwest and mountain states are at 3 percent. So while even Massachusetts could do better, there’s work to do if American colleges and universities are to compete more effectively for international students.
What are other countries doing that we’re not? In 2014, Canada released its first international education strategy, which, while vague, set a target of doubling its international student population within eight years, and allocated funding for marketing Canada as an international destination and for developing mobility strategies with large, emerging markets. Australia’s internationalization efforts are led by a minister of tourism who doubles as minister of international education. Australia has had many national strategies. The latest, published last year, sets out nine distinct objectives for recruiting more international students.
While these strategies (including New Zealand’s) involve marketing the country as a higher education destination and coordinating between English-language training programs and academic pathways, there are two key drivers.
The first is ease of getting a student visa, which includes simplicity of the process as well as wait time. The competition is focused on both. Last year, following complaints that Australia’s student visa system was so complex that colleges attending international education fairs spent “half their time explaining the visa system,” Australia rationalized its student visa process, reducing the number of subclasses and introducing a single risk framework under which all applicants will be assessed. The result is much simpler for students and international agents. And in Canada, when a recent increase in student visa applications led to waiting times that were “weeks longer than those in Britain and the United States,” the issue received national media attention.
The second driver is work opportunities during the academic program and postgraduation. In Canada, international students enrolled at colleges and universities are now permitted to work off-campus for up to 20 hours per week during the academic year and full time during scheduled breaks and, after graduating, stay and work in any field for up to three years. In Australia, students can stay and work for two to four years after graduating, without the need to secure separate work visas. And earlier this month, China announced that international students in master’s programs would be able to transition directly from school to work.
It may not be clear that allowing students to work in the U.S. is consistent with an “America first” approach. We’ve certainly struggled with this question more than the competition. In the U.S., international students can work up to 20 hours per week on campus. But in order to work off-campus they must apply separately to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service for Optional Practical Training. And we don’t make it easy: the work opportunity must be “directly related” to the student’s major; students must wait nine months after starting postsecondary programs; the application takes at least 90 days; and any work during study reduces allowable OPT postgraduation, which is capped at 12 months.
Moreover, recent changes have made it harder for international students to work. Whereas it was previously possible for students doing OPT in STEM-related professions to apply for 17-month extensions, a new rule implemented last year changed it to 24-month extensions but added a bevy of new rules for employers that will significantly reduce employment opportunities for international students: among them, employers must prove that the international student won’t replace a U.S. worker, and employers must provide 20 hours per week of training with strict monitoring.
It would be deliciously ironic if, while the U.K.’s new Brexit prime minister struggles with the question of whether international students should count against proposed immigration caps, our new “America first” president, who knows a thing or two about extending hospitality to guests, could set America on equal footing with Canada and Australia in terms of student visas and work opportunities for the express purpose of advancing the higher education sector and job creation. If the Trump administration truly cares about creating good jobs for American workers, it wouldn’t be inconsistent to take a harder line on refugees and illegal immigration while welcoming students who are likely to create jobs.
So why not allow students on F-1 visas to work in any field for one year postgraduation (without requiring a separate OPT application), and to continue on annually and indefinitely as long as they can demonstrate they’ve created at least one new good job for an American worker each year? Entrepreneurial efforts from talented international graduates could increase substantially, creating even more jobs than the additional jobs created in higher education and support sectors. President Trump understands that international students are guests who are footing the bill at big, beautiful Hotel America, but they should have the ability to become immigrants if they can demonstrate a material contribution to the American economy.
Kids only remain impressionable for so long. My guess is Zev will fall out of love with Russia reasonably soon -- perhaps during the upcoming Senate hearings. Likewise, given our current competitive disadvantages, international students’ love for American colleges and universities may only last for so long.
Millions of students and their families have plans to study in an English-speaking country. Canada, Australia and New Zealand have plans. Although the U.S. currently has no plan, when the new administration does announce a plan for Making American Higher Education Great Again, it must not only set growth targets, encourage all kinds of pathway programs for international students -- embedded, transfer and boarding schools -- and put government muscle and funding behind marketing these programs, but also recognize that in order to make America first in higher education, we need to open America’s doors.
Ryan Craig is managing director at University Ventures, a fund seeking to reimagine the future of higher education and creating new pathways from education to employment.