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Good teachers are said to be good learners. Over the past four years, America’s higher education system, long regarded as the world’s best teacher, has had to learn a painful lesson: our thriving enterprise of educating more than a million international students a year can quickly shift into reverse. All it took was an administration that disparaged immigrants and the facts.
The global leader in higher education and a beacon to smart, talented, hardworking and resourceful students from around the world, the United States -- with support from both Republicans and Democrats -- saw an increase of over 80 percent to more than one million international students between 2006 and 2016. Many of the very best and brightest have stayed here, continuing the long line of immigrants who have contributed first to the vibrancy of our campuses and then to the energy of our economy.
The Trump administration changed all that. It imposed discriminatory travel bans, made visa applications more complicated than they had been or needed to be, and proposed unreasonable limits on students’ length of stay. Combined with a river of anti-immigrant tweets, the administration’s message has been clear: America’s welcome mat has been pulled away.
The unsurprising result: students have begun to go elsewhere. In the 2018-19 academic year, enrollment of international students in American colleges and universities dropped 8 percent compared with four years earlier. Interest in institutions in Canada and Australia increased dramatically. In 2018 and 2019, while our nation’s enrollment of foreign students was stumbling, both those countries saw double-digit growth in their population of international students.
Higher education is this country’s sixth-largest services sector export. A recent analysis from NAFSA estimates that, while down $1.8 billion from the prior year, international students studying at colleges and universities in the United States contributed $38.7 billion to the nation’s economy and supported 415,996 jobs during the 2019-20 academic year. Shoring up that industry now, in the wake of a pandemic that, by one estimate, has cut international enrollment by 16 percent from fall 2019 to fall 2020, is more important than ever.
As the presidents of two of the top 10 research universities in terms of international student enrollment, we have an especially clear view of how much our country gains -- scientifically, intellectually, socially and financially -- from international students.
In research and science, the benefit to the United States of international scholarship is beyond dispute: in 2016, all three winners of the Nobel Prize in physics were faculty members at American universities -- and all three were born outside the country. Noubar Afeyan, the founder of Moderna, developer of one of the vaccines now being used to fight COVID-19, was an international student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology when he received his degree in biochemical engineering. The roster of Abel Prize winners is filled with mathematicians who were born outside the United States and then pursued their degrees or their academic careers in our country.
The impact of international students on the U.S. economy is likewise remarkable: apart from the nearly $40 billion in economic activity that results from the presence of international students, nearly one-quarter of entrepreneurial start-ups worth more than $1 billion were founded by people who came to the United States as international students. Elon Musk, for example, left South Africa and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania before going on to found Tesla and SpaceX.
And the value of the presence and engagement of foreign students on campuses in the United States is just as great. A loss of those students is a loss for American students, whose lives and learning are enriched by sharing classrooms and living spaces with peers from around the world. International students broaden American minds. And coming to the United States in turn broadens their views about us; it is among our most effective forms of diplomacy, with many students returning home to become leaders who have a deeper understanding of American values and lifelong connection to our country. In the long term, the ideas shared and relationships formed may lead to international collaborations that could contribute to our national security and our economic growth.
It’s true that a small number of students who come to America illegally gather information about our research and technology and take it back to their home countries. We must protect our intellectual property and our research, particularly if it’s taxpayer-funded and sensitive. Colleges and universities must work with the government to identify those problem visitors. But it’s worth remembering that most research is an open enterprise, not sensitive; it would be a mistake to use the few bad players who are a threat as an excuse to halt the entire flow of international talent.
The new administration has moved quickly to open several doors that were recently closed. It has withdrawn the previous administration’s proposed stay limit, which puzzlingly and arbitrarily would have allowed international students less time in the United States than is generally needed to complete their degrees, especially graduate studies. The U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, which was recently introduced to Congress, would ease the paths to citizenship for many immigrants, including graduates of American universities with advanced STEM degrees.
We applaud those changes, and we encourage the administration to consider several additional actions. As the pandemic recedes, it should announce clearly and loudly that the United States once again welcomes students from around the world, and it should make sure that that message gets through to U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials. The new leadership should make it easy for international students to track their current status and know what action is necessary to maintain it.
More specifically, the Biden administration should protect optional practical training for recent graduates and reopen overseas consulates and revitalize the visa process so international students can get the paperwork they need to study in America. It should also reinvigorate and make good use of the Homeland Security Academic Advisory Council, a group of university presidents and educational experts tasked with helping the U.S. Department of Homeland Security understand the needs of foreign students.
In the context of so many things that need fixing, international education is relatively uncomplicated. It does not require the retooling of factories or the development of new technologies. It does not even need a major investment. Everything we need is in place now. We are here. We are ready. All the country has to do is replace the welcome mat and let the world know.