Higher Ed’s Warning: Travel Ban Undermines U.S. Tech Training & Hiring

The more than 125 U.S. tech companies that joined the ongoing court battle against the Trump administration’s travel ban have detailed the many business hindrances it could pose, such as stranding foreign-born employees outside the country, and discouraging talented workers abroad from taking jobs here.

But all companies, including tech leaders such as Apple, Google, and Amazon, should also be concerned about the impact of the Trump immigration restrictions on the American higher education institutions that provide the talent to refresh corporate hiring pools, university officials and education advocates say. International students make up a growing share of computer science, engineering, and business majors, while also providing needed financial support and global perspectives to American campuses.

U.S. colleges and universities—many of them private schools that are struggling financially and heavily discounting tuition charges as they compete for American applicants—often bolster their revenue by actively recruiting foreign students. State universities also collect higher tuition fees from foreign students than from U.S. students. The number of international students studying in the United States exceeded one million for the first time in the 2015-16 academic year, and these students added $32.8 billion to their schools and the U.S. economy, according to the Washington, DC-based group NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

“The lion’s share of foreign students pay out-of-state tuition,” NAFSA director of public policy Rachel Banks says.

Along with Amazon and Expedia, the University of Washington in Seattle and Washington State University filed declarations in support of Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson when he sued to overturn President Trump’s Jan 27 executive order barring entry into the United States for at least 90 days to people from seven nations with majority Muslim populations: Syria, Libya, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, and Sudan.

The Washington state public universities said their undergraduates, graduate students, faculty members, and scholars visiting from those nations, were either refused re-entry to the United States or were unable to travel for fear of being unable to return. Research trips, job interviews, and attendance at conferences abroad were stymied.

Trump’s order, which has been temporarily blocked by a federal judge in the Washington case, leaves open the possibility that more countries will be added to the travel ban. The Trump administration is trying to overturn the judge’s ruling, and a federal appeals court in San Francisco is scheduled to hear arguments on the issue Tuesday afternoon. The conflict is expected to wind up before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The turmoil and uncertainty over Trump’s executive order threatens to erode foreign enrollments that some schools rely on to keep science and math-related departments alive—or even to prevent closing a campus entirely, higher education officials say.

More than half a million of the international students studying in the United States last academic year were concentrated in three top fields of study—engineering; business and management; and math and computer science, according to the Open Doors report of the Institute of International Education—a project backed by the State Department.

These students not only fill seats in undergraduate classes, but may also carry part of the teaching load as graduate students. In 2011, as many as 71 percent of the full-time graduate students in electrical engineering, and 65 percent in computer science, were foreign nationals, according to NAFSA. A greater percentage of international students choose to study in STEM fields than American students do, Banks says.

“Some colleges wouldn’t be able to offer science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (programs) without foreign students,” Banks says. Their presence broadens the course offerings for American students, she says.

U.S. schools serve as the beginning of a pipeline that introduces international workers with potential in technology fields into the US hiring pool. Many first enter the country on student visas, and then hopscotch across various visa types, such as the H1-B work visa, to stay here at American tech companies. Some obtain a green card and permanent residency.

Trump’s travel ban, and the confusion surrounding it as the court battles continue, could disrupt that international hiring pipeline, NAFSA’s counsel and director of immigration policy Heather Stewart says.

Students’ uncertainty goes beyond the seven nations named in travel ban

Since Trump issued his executive order, university international programs have been scrambling to advise their current foreign students as well as applicants abroad, as rumors about the government’s plans arise and spread around social media sites. The worries of families overseas aren’t limited to the seven nations already named in the immigration order.

At Montana State University, most of the anxious queries are coming from applicants in India, says David Di Maria, associate provost of MSU’s office of international programs.

“They ask questions like, “Is the U.S. still a safe country?’ “ Di Maria says.

India, which has one of the largest Muslim populations in the world, trails only China among the nations sending the greatest number of international students to the United States. India sent 165,918 students in the 2015-2016 academic year, up 24.9 percent. China sent 328,547, up 8.1 percent.

“The past two years has seen double-digit growth for (students from) India,” Di Maria says. “I don’t know if we’ll see that again, given the inquiries.”

Students and their parents are not only concerned that the administration may add more countries to the restricted list, Di Maria says. In the current climate of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim political rhetoric, they’re also worried about the treatment of Muslim students, whether they’re citizens of Libya, France, or the United States itself.

Martyn Miller, an official with Temple University’s Office of International Affairs, says students are hearing unfounded reports that, for example, U.S. consular officials have stopped granting visas in Kenya, which shares a border with Somalia, one of the seven nations named in the travel ban. Kenya sent more than 3,000 students to the United States in 2015-2016. The rumors also extend to South American countries. “Colombia has come up,” Miller says. “Venezuela has come up.”

The fear and confusion about U.S. immigration policy could extend to Muslim students living in Europe, if their own country of origin, or their parents’, brings them under heightened scrutiny as potential terrorist threats. It’s also conceivable that some non-Muslim students may bypass U.S. schools to express disapproval of the administration’s immigration stance, Miller says.

The uncertainty over U.S. policy comes just as prospective graduate students are facing decision dates—-pondering whether to come to the United States in the fall or go instead to nations such as Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. These countries are high on the list of options for international applicants seeking a leg up for skilled positions in the global economy.

The confusion over ground rules for entry into the United States may persist past the May 1 decision date when many undergraduate applicants must decide which college offer to accept. The outlook for current and prospective foreign students could continue to change every day, for weeks or possibly for months, as federal courts at various levels weigh claims that Trump’s executive order violates principles of the U.S. Constitution, federal laws, and American values.

Outcome of court battle may not end the uncertainty 

Although a federal judge in Washington State put Trump’s executive order on hold nationwide on Friday, the administration is mounting an appeal that could eventually reach the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court might be called on to reconcile conflicting lower court decisions on the issue from the different federal jurisdictions where judges have already weighed in. And new lawsuits continue to be filed.

Even if federal courts rule that parts of the Trump executive order are constitutionally barred, other provisions could survive judicial scrutiny and go into effect. And after the current court battle is settled, Trump could conceivably issue new restrictions, and these may or may not be challenged in court.

A foreign student who manages to get here on a student visa might risk getting stranded on a visit home if U.S. travel policies change unexpectedly again.

Seventeen-year-olds deciding where to spend their freshman year may fear they wouldn’t be able to go home for four years—-and that their families couldn’t come over to visit them, Di Maria says.

Universities are watching out for other changes in immigration policy that could hamper their ability to recruit international students. For example, foreigners who enter the United States on a student visa can now stay for a year after graduation to work, under a program called OPT, or optional practical training. Students have been asking Di Maria whether that option will go away.

If the federal government further restricts H1-B visas—and late last month Bloomberg News reported that an executive order targeting that program is in the works—international students who had hoped for a significant career stint in the United States after graduation might stay home, or look to a more welcoming country such as Canada, Di Maria says.

That may be starting to happen. Di Maria says a Toronto colleague told him that foreign student interest is spiking there.

“They’re seeing an increase in applications like they’ve never seen before,” he says.

Meanwhile, higher education advocacy groups and schools themselves are gearing up a campaign to inform government agencies and the public about the value of international students to American security interests and the U.S. economy.

“International students come here with two suitcases,” Di Maria says. They buy everything else, from housing to cell phones to restaurant meals, creating jobs around Montana State University’s main campus in Bozeman and its three other campuses, he says.

MSU has a robust domestic enrollment, and doesn’t depend on international student tuition for its financial stability, Di Maria says.
But foreign students add a cultural perspective that makes its more than 15,000 U.S. students more valuable employees in the global economy.

Miller says American universities and colleges also perform a diplomatic function. International students who get to know the American people are more likely to engage positively with the United States as they become professionals and leaders in their home countries, he says.

Immigration policy could re-shape U.S. higher education landscape

The United States has many more higher education institutions than other countries competing for international students, Miller says. Seats are available here when students can’t get into the best schools at home or in other nations, he says.

That’s a fortunate symbiosis for U.S. schools facing financial challenges. The American college population is declining due to lower birth rates and other factors, including strained family resources after the 2008 financial crisis. Although college costs seem to be rising based on the tuition rates published in school catalogs, the intense competition for U.S. students has led to substantial tuition discounting through financial aid grants. The average discount rate among private colleges and universities rose to an unprecedented 48.6 percent for first-time freshmen in 2015-2016, Inside Higher Ed reported.

Add to that a long trend of declining state support for public universities, and the financial contribution of international students becomes all the more important.

Technology has also created new competitors for the customer base in post-secondary education. Students can now choose online degree programs, and adults can choose from a host of apps to study a foreign language, learn computer programming, and brush up on other skills.

Recruiting international students is one of the ways a school can sustain itself. But some of those students—along with their money, and their contributions to the U.S. workforce—-could flow elsewhere if U.S. immigration restrictions tighten significantly, higher ed officials say.

American universities themselves are finding ways to meet the needs of these students outside U.S. borders. For one thing, they’re expanding their own online programs. Students can get a U.S. education without coming to America. For example, Temple university has the top-ranked online MBA program in the nation, Miller says.

And like American tech companies who say they could have trouble importing talent due to the Trump administration’s proposed policies, universities can expand their operations abroad.

Temple has two branch campuses overseas, in Rome and Tokyo. Miller says the university is considering a plan to give some international students the option to start their education in Japan if they’ve been admitted to Temple, but can’t get a student visa. Then they might be able to transfer to the Philadelphia-based university if the travel restrictions are lifted.

Both online learning and branch campuses could be good for foreign students and their college or university. But, Miller points out, those students won’t be spending their money in a college town where the university may be one of the biggest employers—another potential consequence of the Trump administration’s heightened restrictions on entry into the United States, he says.

“The impact could be hugely negative on the U.S. as an economy in ways we haven’t considered,” Miller says.

Photo credit: CollegeCampus © Mnapoli; Depositphotos

Bernadette Tansey is Xconomy's San Francisco Editor. You can reach her at btansey@xconomy.com. Follow @Tansey_Xconomy

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