An interview with Rajika Bhandari, of The Institute of International Education, reveals effect proposed bans have on international students and the institutions that host them. 

By Annea Hapçiu

Rajika Bhandari is the deputy vice president for research and evaluation at the Institute of International Education (IIE) in New York.

Dr. Rajika Bhandari, deputy vice president for research and evaluation at the Institute of International Education. (Photo courtesy: Rajika Bhandari)

She leads two projects at IIE, Open Doors and Project Atlasand oversees the Institute’s research and evaluation activities that measure international higher education mobility. This is a summary of Bhandari’s Skype interview with the Writing and Editing for Convergent Media students at American University in Washington, D.C., edited for length and clarity.

International students contribute greatly to the U.S. — knowledge-wise and economically

In the last 20 years, the U.S. has been and continues to be the top-choice country for international students. These students bring knowledge and diversity to American campuses and a large sum of money to the U.S. economy annually — in 2015, it was $36 billion. That encompasses tuition, fees and living expenses for themselves and their family members. It could be argued that the U.S. higher education is the fifth largest export in the country, without “leaving American soil,” Bhandari said.

Higher education institutions in the U.S. are dependent upon international students, especially schools in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

According to the Association of International Educators (NAFSA), international students helped create 400,000 jobs in the U.S. in 2015.

9/11 brought a ‘magnifying lens to international students in the U.S.’

Before 9/11, foreign students were not a big focus of discussion in the U.S. The attacks happened, and that brought “a magnifying lens to the hundreds of thousands of international students who come here each year,” Bhandari said. Since then “international students have remained in the national consciousness and the focus of attention.”

The years following 9/11 saw a dip in international applicants to U.S. universities. As a result, many academic programs suffered. For some science and engineering programs, it is the interest of international students that keeps them alive.

An argument has been made that “international students are taking away seats from domestic students, aid and scholarships,” Bhandari said. International students “are not taking away seats, but they are certainly raising the level of competition.”

A recent snapshot report of 250 surveyed institutions, released in March 2017 by NAFSA, the College Board and AACRAO, found that about 40 percent of responding institutions were “indeed reporting a drop in international applications from students around the world, but particularly the Middle East,” Bhandari said.

“There is concern about students from India and China too.”

It remains to be seen whether recent developments between Mexico and the U.S. might also impact Mexican students’ perspectives to attend college in the U.S.

However, these fluctuations might not simply be a result of recent immigration policies and travel bans. They also reflect other trends.

“Over the last couple of years the huge inflow of Chinese students for the U.S. was beginning to flatten just a little bit,” Bhandari added.

“What I am saying is that these developments are critical, but they are part of a much bigger landscape.”

Brazil had a scholarship program that sent thousands of students to the U.S., but after the program ended, numbers from this country began to flatten out, too.

International students look elsewhere for options

Top host countries for international students are the U.S., the U.K., Australia, France, Germany and now increasingly China. Anytime “one major host of international students, one major player, sees a major shift, usually in a downward direction or a flattening of the numbers, you could be sure that a number of others are going to begin to see some increases,” Bhandari said.

That is why Canada has been reporting an uptick in numbers of international applications in the last several months.

“It is important to remember that there will be occasional blips, but it is the longer-term arc or recovery that one should also focus on. It is almost like what one says about the stock market: that to really know what is happening, you have to take a longer-term view. 9/11 is a very good case in point,” Bhandari said.

The U.S. has benefited in this regard in the last couple of years, with changes of U.K. immigration policies and higher education policies, and from several hate instances towards Indian students that happened in Australia.

“When 9/11 happened, yes there was a decline for a period, but they picked up. The drop was not that huge, and it actually recovered pretty quickly. Since that point on we have seen very rapid growth in international students coming to the U.S.,” Bhandari added.

The recent snapshot report shows that campuses are concerned, yet recent trends need to be kept in a broader perspective.

U.S. diploma remains attractive to foreign students in STEM and enterprise fields 

The U.S. has 4,000 higher education institutions, with “every course of study imaginable in different locations in the U.S., from associates and community colleges to very large doctorate research institutions,” Bhandari said.

The broad array of state-of-the-art science, engineering and research facilities are the main appeal for foreign students, especially for those interested in pursuing master’s or doctorate degrees. Moreover, opportunities in the innovation and enterprise fields are especially attractive in general to international students.

“One of the reasons why the U.S. is such a magnet for students all over the world is that the sheer size and scale and diversity of the U.S. higher education system are unparalleled to anywhere else in the world,” Bhandari said.

Featured photo by Lexi Ruskell