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How Trump's travel ban undermines a key US export: Higher education

Melody Hahm
Senior Writer
Immigrant Students Rally In Washington (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The Supreme Court upheld the Trump administration’s order curbing immigration or travel from several largely Muslim countries, which could have dire consequences for higher education.

On Tuesday the high court ruled 5-4 in favor of Trump’s travel ban, which is in its third iteration and indefinitely bans or restricts immigrants from Chad, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela and Yemen.

In Trump v. Hawaii, the state of Hawaii argued the ban hurts its university system by preventing students and scholars from entering the country. Three U.S. citizens or lawful permanent relatives joined the case as individual plaintiffs, contending the ban prevents their family members from Iran, Syria and Yemen from entering the country.

Higher education is among the sectors most directly impacted by the decision. The decrease in international students coming to the U.S. has been in effect under the Trump administration, even prior to the Supreme Court’s decision. Visas issued to foreign students fell last year, in part because the White House’s travel ban made the U.S. a less accessible destination.

In the year ended September 2017, the State Department issued 393,573 student (or F-1) visas, representing a 17% drop from the previous fiscal year and nearly 40% below the 2015 peak.

When Trump first signed an executive order to block individuals from select countries from entering, the nonprofit Association of American Universities released a memo stating “the order is stranding students who have been approved to study here and are trying to get back to campus, and threatens to disrupt the education and research of many others.”

AAU represents 60 US research institutions, including Columbia, Cornell, Duke, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, MIT, Northwestern, Stanford, the University of California system, UChicago, UPenn, Yale, and the University of Michigan, among other prestigious universities.

University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel was among the first college presidents to refuse to release students’ immigration status, reiterating the institution’s nondiscrimination policy. “Once students are admitted, the university is committed to fostering an environment in which each student can flourish,” his statement read.

‘Why would you come to the U.S. when it sends a message that it’s belligerent?’

The loss of international students will hurt the bottom lines of colleges and universities. David Kotok, the chairman and chief investment officer of Cumberland Advisors, which manages $3 billion of fixed income and equity accounts, expressed his concerns around the decision.

“We are seeing the deterioration of a great American export. The U.S. is squandering a competitive advantage. And the buyer comes here to make the purchase and pays cash. We don’t have to ship a higher education anywhere. And school by school by school, we see a shrinking population of foreign students applying and coming to the U.S.,” Kotok told Yahoo Finance.

Kotok explained that the impact isn’t necessarily happening to top-tier schools like the Ivy Leagues, but second-tier and state schools will be directly affected.

“Those students can make other choices in the world, and therefore they don’t have to come here. And it’s all because of the messaging that we are sending to the world: we are saying if you are 18 years old, you could be harassed when you enter our country. We don’t want you, we don’t like you, we have a political enterprise that doesn’t appeal to diversity,” he said.

“If you’re a student in any country where you’re part of an elite class, you’re looking at other places in the world to study. Why would you come to the U.S. when it sends a message every single day that it’s bellicose and belligerent, and in some cases odious because it is personalized and vindictive?” he posited.

Forty-six percent of U.S. graduate school deans reported substantial declines in admission yields for all international students for fall 2017 enrollment, and 52% reported seeing these declines in admission yields of prospective graduate students from the Middle East and North Africa, according to an amicus brief that 31 universities and colleges signed in March.

In conversations with educators, Kotok said he has been getting the same feedback, about courses being canceled, particularly at the graduate level, because too few students enrolled.

Kotok brings up a valid argument. The 1.1 international students studying at U.S. colleges and universities contributed an estimated $36.9 billion in the 2016-2017 academic year, according to NAFSA, an association of international educators.

International students in the U.S. topped 1 million for the first time in 2016, according to the Institute of International Education, a nonprofit that collaborates with governments and education foundations around the world. Though foreign students only make up 5% of students in the U.S. higher education system, they represent strong growth among students in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

Among the countries listed on the temporary ban, Iranian students, in particular, make up a bulk of foreign students studying in the U.S. Students from Iran increased by 8.2% between 2015 and 2016 — hitting 12,269 students, the highest U.S. enrollment by Iranians in 29 years, according to IIE.

Trump’s travel ban could have the unintended consequence of making the U.S. a less appealing place to study, which could hurt the economy in the long-run.