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As Visa Restrictions Deter International Students, Institutions Pay the Price

For international students, studying in the United States has become much harder. The recent revision of policies has made it more difficult for students to obtain and retain visas and has led to decreased international student enrollment at American institutions. To compensate, many institutions are forced to make significant and harmful budget cuts.

Tougher Visa Regulations

In 2018, the Trump administration enacted stricter policies to regulate student visa holders in the United States. Under these new policies, visa holders are considered unlawfully present the day after they finish their course of study or if they engage in unauthorized activities such as attending a different school or working over twenty hours a week. Once students are declared unlawfully present, they must return to their home country to reapply for another visa, at which point they could be denied a visa altogether or barred from the United States for up to ten years. As Forbes stated, “This strict revision of policy is evidence that there is pressure from Washington on universities to clamp down on international students in the United States.” Even before the policy memorandum was published, F-1 visa approvals had decreased by 17% between 2016 and 2017, according to CNN, demonstrating that the United States is denying more visas and effectively reducing the number of international students in the country.

Chinese Students Targeted

International student enrollments from the top three nations that send students to the United States—China, India, and South Korea—have declined since the policy memorandum took effect, as Inside Higher Ed reported. Tensions between the current United States government and China have made Chinese students specific targets of new visa restrictions. According to The New York Times, the Trump administration, concerned about intellectual property theft, has made it particularly difficult for Chinese graduate students in STEM fields to obtain longer-term visas. Instead of receiving five-year visas, as these students had in the past, they now must reapply every year, and there’s a chance that their request will be denied each time. The uncertainty of whether they will be able to stay in the country for the duration of their studies has deterred many Chinese students from coming to the United States. In addition, since many international students plan to stay in the United States to work after graduating, the precarity of their future work status could discourage them from choosing to study in the United States and encourage them to study instead in countries with less restrictive visa policies (such as Canada).

National Decline in Enrollments

Because of the increased difficulty of the visa process, many international students are choosing not to study in the United States. According to a report published by NAFSA: Association of International Educators, there was a 6.6% decrease in new international student enrollments at American universities in the 2017–18 academic year, double the 3.3% decrease from the year before. This drop in new enrollments “marks the first time America has seen a two-year decline” after years of rising enrollments. While there are many factors that may contribute to the decline (e.g., the sociopolitical environment of the United States, perceived hostility toward immigrants, rising tuition costs, lack of financial aid), NAFSA cites the difficulty of the visa application process as the number one reason international students are choosing not to study in the United States.

Repercussions for American Colleges and Universities

In the long term, this decrease in the number of international students could harm the United States economy. International students contributed $39 billion to the economy in 2018, and international education currently constitutes the “fifth-largest U.S. service sector export,” according to the NAFSA report. Institutions of higher education, however, are suffering more immediate and severe consequences. Students from abroad usually pay full tuition, and at public universities international tuition is typically much higher than in-state or domestic tuition, making these institutions especially vulnerable to revenue loss. The New York Times reported that at the University of Central Missouri international students pay double the tuition of in-state students; after nearly 1,500 fewer international students enrolled in fall 2017 than in the previous year, the university lost $14 million in revenue.

Faced with losses in revenue, universities have had to make substantial budget cuts, often reducing funding for departments and student organizations. At Wright State University, the Times reported, administrators cut the Italian, Russian, and Japanese programs and fired other nontenured faculty members in response to a $30 million budget deficit caused by the university’s decline in international student enrollments. Aside from serious financial concerns, the decline in enrollments also carries negative implications for campus diversity; having fewer foreign students means that there are fewer perspectives shared, both inside and outside the classroom. As The Atlantic stated, “Although the current decline of foreign talent to the U.S. is unlikely to shake the nation right away, the economic and cultural losses could become stark over the next few years.” If international students continue to face obstacles in obtaining visas and if enrollments continue to decline, American institutions will pay the price.

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