We Won't Make America Great Again by Scaring Off Foreign College Students

Donald Trump's restrictionist immigration policies are making U.S. universities less exceptional.


American colleges and universities have long been the most sought-after in the world, as judged by the number of foreign students who come to study here. About 20 percent of college students who study abroad choose a school in the United States. That's almost twice the percentage that choose somewhere in the United Kingdom, the second-most popular location.

But that corner of American greatness might be getting shut down. According to the Institute of International Education (IIE), between the academic years of 2016/17 and 2017/18, the number of new international students enrolling in U.S. colleges and universities dropped 6.3 percent for undergrads, 5.5 percent for grad students, and 9.7 percent for non-degree students. Overall, the drop was 6.6 percent and the total number of new international students (about 272,000) is down to levels last seen in 2013/14. The number of new enrollments peaked at 301,000 in 2015/16.

As the IIE notes, the decline in new students is offset a bit by the number of foreign students who participate in the "Optional Practical Training (OPT) program, which allows international students to practice their skills in the United States for up to 12 months during or after they complete their academic programs, or up to 36 months for students who have earned a degree in STEM fields." If you factor in OPT folks, the number of international students increased overall by 1.5 percent between 2016/17 and 2017/18 (the last year for which there is data). But with fewer new students enrolling, there will be fewer graduates eligible for OPT down the road.

Why are foreign students, who mostly come from China (33 percent), India (18 percent), and South Korea (5 percent), bypassing the United States? Writing at Forbes, Stuart Anderson, the executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy, states that "the Trump administration has made it more difficult for international students to stay or work in America." Among other things, the White House is working to reduce or eliminate the OPT program, has made it easier for international students to get deported due to clerical errors, and made it harder and more expensive to get an H-1B visa, which is the sort of work permit most international college grads need to stay in the country. And both President Trump and many in the Republican Party are pushing legislation that would reduce legal immigration by 50 percent.

It's not just students who are thinking twice about coming to America. As a friend of mine who runs a math department at a top-tier public university has told me, foreign-born faculty are also thinking twice about coming to a country in which immigration policy is becoming more restrictionist. So we're not just losing students who want to come here, but also faculty, researchers, and scholars.

In trying to "Make America Great Again," Donald Trump and his allies are trying to reduce the number of foreign-born people living here. To the extent that they succeed, they will be making U.S. colleges and universities less desirable than they once were. Given declining birthrates and the outsized role immigrants play in starting new companies—foreign-born individuals comprise 15 percent of the labor force but are 25 percent of entrepreneurs who start new businesses—scaring off newcomers is a recipe for decline, not greatness.

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  1. As a friend of mine who runs a math department at a top-tier public university has told me, foreign-born faculty are also thinking twice about coming to a country in which immigration policy is becoming more restrictionist.

    Suggest to your friend that maybe the foreigners could busy themselves making their own countries great. Let them catch up with us, it will be better for their populations in the long run.

    1. Brain drain is a thing.

      1. ^^^THIS^^^

        Thomas Sowell wrote that a PhD from an american university should come with citizenship attached. For sci/tech in particular, I think he’s right.

        1. As someone with a PhD in sci/tech, I wholeheartedly disagree. The foreign student path is distinct (particularly given the number of foreign-born faculty) and numerous programs are filled with international grad students whose singular objective is a visa.

  2. Yeah, it’s not foreign students or faculty or anything having to do with higher education that’s going contribute at all to America’s greatness. It’s SPACE FORCE, em-effers!

  3. 1. We’re actually doing these students a favor, as college is at least 80% signalling. Read Bryan Caplan’s “The Case Against Education.”

    2. OPT unfairly discriminates against US Citizens. Foreigners in the OPT aren’t subject to the payroll tax and their employers don’t have to pay the matching payroll tax. What ever happened to Equal Protection?

    1. “What ever happened to Equal Protection?”


    2. The last thing that will Make America Great is a bunch of foreign, impressionable college students being indoctrinated in the prevailing academic ideology that America Sucks, Especially When It’s Not A One-Party Democrat State.

  4. California universities have already gotten in trouble for accepting too many foreign students over qualified Americans only because the foreign students pay a lot more. Denying Americans an education over foreign students is a sure path to ruining this nation while those foreign students take their education back to their home countries. leaving the U.S. with a brain drain

  5. Yeah, it has to be Trump. It couldn’t have anything to do with tuition rising to insane levels or the ever increasing ability to study online from anywhere on the planet.

    1. Or SJW mobs running the show.

  6. Yea, gotta be Trump and immigration. Not at all widespread grievance studies majors backed by federal loans or rising administrative costs

    Get bent

  7. Where the hell is the “remember me” on the login popup? I’ve had to log in three times for three replies.

    It’s a conspiracy, right? This is how they get you.

    1. Sure you’re not just hungover from 420 day?

  8. I’m detecting a theme of late in Reason articles. They are becoming so infested with beyond-normal levels of dumb-fuckery that I think it’s part of a cunning plan heretofore hidden.

    So the plan is let ’em walk across the border, pay them $15 an hour, vote (for Democrats), and sign up for expensive college educations, the loans for which are funded by the taxpayer and which will soon be interest-free; and the tuition itself will soon be completely free.

    Crash the system, right? Nice, Reason, nice.

  9. Did Robby wit this on Nick’s computer while he was at lunch and forgot to log out?

    Too much “orange man bad”.

    What about the opportunities this is f presenting for domestic males who are falling further and further and further behind in education.

  10. Perhaps the greatest thing hurting American college students are foreign grad students that cannot speak English yet still teach classes. STEM is hard enough without the added difficulty of having a teacher who is completely incomprehensible.

  11. “So we’re not just losing students who want to come here, but also faculty, researchers, and scholars.”

    The article doesn’t address the main criticism: that foreign students are coming here, to the schools’ delight which can charge them full tuition, only to return to their home countries with their increased human capital and simultaneously displacing U.S. citizens who would remain here and add to the U.S.’ human capital.

    What exactly is the loss of not-having a foreign mostly-useless undergrad (even if STEM) here for four years (excluding, say, two summers)? Any stats of what fraction of foreign students wind up remaining in the U.S. for, say, five years? I bet even those are low.

    None of the institutions in question are hurting for funds, either from the State or their endowments, so it isn’t like our universities are suffering for the lack of foreign tuition dollars. How is MIT, for example, made better by having an Indian or Chinese undergrad on campus for four years, rather than some, say, U.S. citizen (who could also be of Indian or Chinese decent)? Anecdotally, the very significant foreign-born student population at my undergrad university might as well have been going to another school, were generally useless when paired up for labs, and excelled mostly at cheating on tests.

    “foreign-born individuals comprise 15 percent of the labor force”

    *Cough, these aren’t exactly all STEAM holdovers, Nick.

  12. Uhhh, did they account for the fact that FOREIGN universities in those countries are becoming ever better and more respected? Like in China and India? Half the reason they had been going out of country was because they literally just didn’t have the seats at home in the past.

    Also, America has immigrant fatigue. If we hadn’t allowed in so many illegals and legal unskilled people people would be a lot more open to allowing every single skilled person to move here. But 15% of the country being NOT American born creates a lot of fatigue in peoples minds of having to deal with all their dirty foreign ways. If we had 10% all PHDs nobody would be batting an eye.

    That’s the path forward.

  13. Has nobody mentioned that those foreign students are probably the only ones paying the full tuition bill? That was my case in grad school anyway. I paid less than a 1/3 of what they were paying.

  14. Just one question, Mr. Gillespie: How much Chinese money is Reason magazine (or you personally) being paid to advocate for allowing their agents unrestricted access to our commercial and military secrets?

    Because that’s what’s going on.

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