Higher Education

How the immigration controversy could drive up the cost of college

Losing international students would cost U.S. universities billions in revenue

The University of Central Missouri is one of many higher-education institutions to express support for its Muslim students after President Donald Trump’s executive order restricting travel by people from seven predominantly Muslim countries.

Like many of the rest, it has reasons for feeling apprehensive that are not solely about empathy.

The university hosted more than 3,700 international students last year, most of them paying full tuition that helps subsidize domestic students. Losing even a portion of those — something there are signs may already be starting to happen nationwide — would have a significant financial impact that could ultimately drive up costs for Americans.

“I think the situation politically in this country has some [international] students pushing the pause button right now,” said Mike Godard, Central Missouri’s vice provost for enrollment management.

And not just those from the countries affected by the order, from which only two of the campus’s 14,000 students come. The school’s international applications overall have been sluggish this year, Godard said. And even before the recent events, the nation’s market share of international students had been slipping in the face of competition from the likes of Canada and Australia.

Trouble is, scores of U.S. schools have come to rely on international students to keep their budgets in the black. At public universities in particular, international students usually pay full nonresident tuition and, in some cases, additional fees, which has helped these institutions weather downturns in state funding without raising tuition as much as they might have had to otherwise. That could make the immigration order must more disruptive to higher education than has previously been understood.

More than one million international students studied at U.S. colleges and universities last year, according to the Institute of International Education, a new high. Those students added an estimated $35 billion to the U.S. economy, the institute said.

Students from the seven countries in the travel ban alone bring in more than $700 million, according to the research firm College Factual.

Several colleges and universities are already reporting drop-offs in international applications.

“I have heard numerous reports from admission officers and from international high school counselors that prospective students from other Muslim countries are concerned that they will face a hostile environment,” said Melanie Gottlieb, deputy director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, or AACRAO. “Or that the [list of countries affected by] the ban will be expanded and they would be forced to abandon their studies in the U.S.”

In the lawsuit against the Trump immigration order, attorneys general from 15 states and the District of Columbia said in an amicus brief that it “imminently threatens the loss of hundreds of millions of tuition dollars” and “has already disrupted the on-going admissions process for the 2017-2018 school year.”

The largest numbers of international students in the United States come from China and India, but the third-largest group comes from Saudi Arabia. While they’re not covered by the Trump restrictions, Saudi Arabia is almost entirely Muslim and India has more than 130 million Muslims — one of the world’s largest Muslim populations.

Gottlieb’s organization will be surveying its 2,600 or so members this week to get a more detailed handle on the early effects of the immigration order; it also has added a panel about this issue to its annual meeting in Minneapolis in April.

An earlier survey by the education consultancy Intead revealed deep concerns about the United States’ political climate among potential international students, especially from Mexico and other Latin American countries — even before the restrictions were announced.

Meanwhile, Australian and Canadian institutions have tried to capitalize by recruiting international students. The Canadian government in November made it easier for foreign students to become permanent residents; students who come to Australia are eligible for temporary visas for from 18 months to four years that can lead to permanent citizenship.

“Canada’s universities continue to welcome students, faculty and staff from around the world, including those seeking refuge from violence and hardship,” the association Universities Canada said in a statement just after Trump’s executive order was issued.

Small and mid-sized colleges have the most to lose if international students look elsewhere, said Lindsay Addington, who directs international initiatives for the National Association of College Admission Counseling. Large, well-known schools will keep attracting students because of their robust alumni networks, she said.

“Those with high brand recognition are going to be less affected by the changing tide,” she said. But at other colleges, “there’s less of a trail of success stories.”

The issue appears to be touchy among affected schools. Several universities with significant international enrollment refused to discuss it, including the University of California system, Arizona State University and the 5,400-student University of Bridgeport, where 41 percent of the student body is from other countries.

Even before the travel ban, graduate schools were seeing significant declines in enrollment from the Middle East. Saudi Arabian applications declined 20 percent last year, said the Council of Graduate Schools.

U.S. universities “are preparing for potential future effects of these policies on admissions and enrollments for international graduate students,” the council said.

A decline in international students in the United States would be compounded by another possibility: that U.S. students will flock to other countries to study. At the University of Toronto, applications from U.S. students have jumped 70 percent from last year, said Universities Canada, while several other Canadian schools have seen increases of 20 percent or more.

“Canada is actively using international admissions as a means of growing their population,” said Michael Reilly, executive director of AACRAO. “They’re putting out the welcome mat at the same time we’re cutting back on visas.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education.

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Matt Krupnick

Matt Krupnick is a freelance reporter and editor who contributes regularly to The New York Times and the Hechinger Report. He was a reporter with… See Archive

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