For years the United States has been a top pick for international students, but with the Trump administration’s stance on immigration, student attitudes are changing.

By Lauren Lumpkin


Universities have even more at stake if international students can’t, or are reluctant, to study here: billions of dollars in lost revenue.

International students do not qualify for federal financial aid, so many of them pay full tuition. According to Rajika Bhandari, deputy vice president of research and evaluation at the Institute of International Education (IIE), international students contributed $36 billion to the U.S. economy during just the 2015–2016 school year alone. If we were to consider education as an industry like automobiles or oil, it would be the United States’ fifth largest export.

Students walk through the American University campus. (Photo by: Lauren Lumpkin)

“The sheer size and scale and diversity of the U.S. higher education system is unparalleled anywhere in the world,” Bhandari said.

Not to mention international students’ contributions to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs. According to the IIE’s Open Doors project, engineering, business administration, and math and computer science have been the most popular fields of study for international students since 1999. Students from abroad have been bolstering these programs for U.S. schools ever since.

International applications dip

That may be changing. According to Karin Fischer, senior reporter at The Chronicle for Higher Education, 38 percent of U.S. colleges have already seen a decline in applications from international students.

Instead, students are looking to countries like Canada, where some colleges have reported as much as a 20 percent increase in applications.

While the proposed travel ban only directly affects students from six countries — about 2.5 percent of international students — the policy sends a powerful message to anyone looking to study in the States.

“It’s a concrete thing. It’s a concrete message that is being sent,” Fischer said.

For one of her articles, Fischer met a student from Nigeria who was worried that their country — the majority of which is Muslim — was going to be added to the list of banned countries next.

American University held a teach-in to discuss legal options for non-U.S. citizens (Photo by: Sarah Katherine Dolezal)

“There’s this thinking that this is just a precursor to broader things, and so I think a lot of colleges really wanted to be proactive in reassuring their current students [that they are welcome on campus],” Fischer said.

Universities have tried to do this by sending emails to international applicants or hosting town halls and teach-ins for students and faculty. Some, like Columbia University, have even declared sanctuary status.

“Columbia’s location in [New York City], where [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] officials have been particularly visible lately, emphasizes the importance of protecting vulnerable individuals in our community,” said Maureen Rakovec, a sophomore and biology major at Columbia.

International, but not worried

But not every student is worried. Jiayi Xuan, 22, is from Shanghai, China. Her country is not on President Donald Trump’s list of banned countries.

Xuan said that Trump’s travel bans haven’t really been a cause of concern for her.

“During spring break I traveled to London with my Chinese passport and got a U.K. visa real quick, and I didn’t have a problem coming back” into the United States, Xuan said.

Anna Yu, 22, from Beijing, China, had similar feelings.

She said she feels safe in the U.S. and hasn’t heard of anyone back home changing their minds about studying in the U.S.

Chinese students, who have historically been the largest group of international students in the country, may not have the same concerns as, say, students from Syria or even Mexico.

One reaction: Multilingual welcome videos

Because of these concerns — such as fear of deportation or safety threats — universities are changing the way they recruit and welcome students.

“One thing that I think we’re most sensitive to … is whether students will actually be able to arrive on campus,” said Lauren Sinclair, the academic director of the International Accelerator Program at American University. The International Accelerator is a not-for-credit program designed to help incoming international students prepare for university life in the U.S.

Schools like AU are having to navigate a new set of problems. For example, international students in the past have often been able to participate in the visa interview waiver program, which expedites the visa renewal process by allowing students to skip a required in-person interview at a U.S. consulate. This program was suspended under President Trump’s March 6 executive order.

“[This] is going to put a huge strain on consular offices and embassies abroad,” said Sinclair. “So whether students will actually be able to make an appointment on time and be awarded their visas is something that we’re going to have to be kind of on watch for.”

Universities dedicate a lot of resources to recruiting international students — almost $5,000 per student in fact. The stakes are even higher now, and universities are altering their recruitment methods because of it.

Portland State University was “already planning for their president to go to India as part of a recruitment trip, but I think he ended up spending a lot more time talking, trying to send this message about the institution and the country being more welcoming, than he was planning to do,” said Fischer. PSU has already seen a 25 percent drop in applications from Indian students.

American University has embarked on a similar mission. In March, the institution launched the #YouAreWelcomeHere campaign, which includes a short video featuring students saying “Welcome to AU” in different languages.

Sinclair’s office, along with the school’s International Student and Scholar Services, has discussed the idea of sending information to students before they arrive on campus.

“It can be very different in a different country. Knowing your rights, knowing what you can say and what you shouldn’t say. Knowing what you can give and what you don’t have to give up,” said Sinclair. “What I hear is a lot of people being asked to give their passwords for phones and all sorts of other questions of privacy issues.”

However, the main goal for Sinclair is to make sure that students feel supported. She says that something as simple as making sure that students have a phone number to contact her office once they arrive in the U.S. can make a difference.

While international students are a financial asset to colleges and universities, administrators say these students add much more to campuses.  

“I think there is an invaluable, incalculable component here that we haven’t really tapped into in modern society. But it’s been a constant, in terms of human history, that exchange promotes the development of human civilization,” Sinclair said.


Featured photo by Lauren Lumpkin