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International Students Are Turning Their Backs On American Universities

COVID-19 will accelerate the declining international enrolment initially caused.


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Varun Rustomji

3 years ago | 6 min read

COVID-19 has affected businesses of all sizes and while some continue to thrive others are facing an existential crisis. American Higher Education has become a vastly profitable business over the last decade but the turbulent political climate and hostility towards minorities has caused serious concerns for an industry that relies heavily on students coming to America from all around the globe.

I think the pandemic is just going to make things worse, causing a lot of mid-tier non-prestigious universities to shut their doors.

Things won’t change as much as they will accelerate. While other crisis reshape the future, COVID-19 is just making the future happen faster. — Scott Galloway

The number of international students getting admitted to graduate programs at America institutes was already on a decline. The number of applications from international students joining American institutions declined by 3.3% in 2017 and 6.6% in 2018.

This drop can be explained by the fact that President Trump initiated a ban on people entering the U.S. from multiple Muslim-majority countries in 2017.

The two countries that send the largest cohort of students to the U.S for education are China and India. International students not only help the U.S Economy but also ensures that America continues to lead in Technology and Innovation. Here are some facts to highlight this phenomenon :

International students contributed nearly $41 billion to the US economy in 2018 alone.
Nearly one-quarter of the founders of the $1 billion U.S. startup companies first came to America as international students.

In 2016, all six American winners of the Nobel Prizes in economics and scientific fields were immigrants.
Immigrants have been awarded 40% of the Nobel Prizes won by Americans in chemistry, medicine, and physics since 2000.

Even though international students help the American economy grow, the current administration is making it extremely difficult for international students to pursue their education in the country. As seen in the graph above, over 50% of international students come from China and India. The administration has targeted these students in the following ways :

  1. Due to the ongoing trade disputes with China, the government has been making it difficult for Chinese students to get study visas. The government believes that the Chinese Communist Party is sending students as spies to the U.S. to steal intellectual property from American Companies.
  2. For Indian students, it has become increasingly difficult to receive a H1-B visa. What made US an enticing choice for most Indian’s pursuing a STEM degree was the opportunity to stay in the U.S. and work for up to three years after graduating. Many believe that the Trump administration could change or end this program. Below are some of the key reasons why international students are not coming to the U.S according to university administrators.

Source: NAFSA

Now that we have a general idea about the factors hindering international student from coming to America, let’s see why COVID-19 is just going to amplify this effect.

Being an international student studying in Canada and having a lot of friends who are applying to grad school all over the world, I feel like I am uniquely positioned to provide some valuable insights here.

  1. Visa Application Process: This is a big issue right now especially for Indian students. I have a few friends who have been accepted into Ivy Leagues and other prestigious programs but they haven’t been able to get a Visa because India is still struggling to contain the virus. Even the ones who have received a visa are reconsidering their decision due to the growing cases and deaths in America due to the pandemic.
  2. Social and Political Environment: This was one of the reasons why I personally chose to study in Canada instead of the America. The pandemic has further highlighted the sheer incompetence of the American social services, political infrastructure and the President. As of writing this post, there are 1.89 million cases of COVID-19 in America compared to 94 thousand in Canada. Even considering the fact that America has a higher population, the Canadian government has inarguably done a substantially better job of handling the pandemic.
  3. Enrol in Other International Universities: While the number of international students in American Universities has been declining since 2017, the number of international students going to Australia and Canada has increased by 15% and 20% respectively. Since both these countries have a much more stable political environment, I see no reason why students would not choose Canadian or Australian universities over second tier American institutions. I personally chose to study in Canada because of some of the other reasons mentioned.
  4. Cost of Tuition: This was one of the main reasons why I chose to study in Canada instead of America. International students in any country pay almost 2–3x the fees paid by domestic students. The average tuition for a 4 year undergraduate degree in Canada is $25,000 per year whereas in America the average is around $30,000 per year. If we also consider the fact that the Canadian dollar is weaker than the U.S dollar, the $5000 dollar difference per year suddenly becomes a lot more for students coming from Asian countries like India and China. The pandemic doesn’t really affect this factor much unless it causes the price of the U.S dollar to drop or American universities to reduce their tuition, neither of which seem likely.
  5. Feeling Unwelcome and Physical Safety: This was not a concern of mine personally being a brown straight man but it is a huge factor for students coming from African countries and predominantly muslim countries. The hostility towards minorities has been on the rise and nothing highlights this resentment like the protests currently going on in America over the murder of George Floyd. The pandemic did affect this factor because most of the Americans that lost their jobs due to the pandemic were African-American and people from other minorities. New York has been the epicenter of the outbreak in America and stats show that Black and Latino people are twice as likely to die due to the virus.
  6. Securing a Job: This was one of the key factors that attracted talented individuals to America. I study computer science and most of the big tech companies that have a global impact were started and have headquarters in America. Many of these were actually started and are still run by international students and immigrants. Due to COVID-19 many tech companies like Twitter and Square have decided to go fully remote. This means that there is no benefit for international students like me to come to America, pay 2x tuition fees and then go back to our home country and earn the salary according to the cost of living in our home country. It would become financially challenging for a large majority of middle income Indians to afford studying in America. In my opinion, industries going remote is going to have a HUGE impact on the education sector. It will give the administration another reason to hold back visas of international students after they have graduated. This is not only an economical but also a strategic loss for America.

Keeping all the economics aside, international students also allow domestic students to gain a diverse and holistic world view. It makes the locals more aware of international issues, politics and introduces them to different cultures and ideas.

These skills are very important for anyone who wishes to work in a global workforce.

Students are forced to question their preconceived notions, think critically and become active listeners. Even the students who choose to return to their home country carry with them the American values of freedom, individuality and democracy which helps America maintain its position as a global superpower.

International students are extremely important for the economic and strategic growth of America and loosing them will be a huge loss for the country.

America still has things to be optimistic about

A major reason why America has been so attractive for international students besides the reasons mentioned above is the fact that 14 out of the top 20 universities and 41.2% of the top 100 universities in the world are based in America as of 2020.

Universities like Harvard, Caltech, MIT, Stanford will continue attracting the best and brightest minds in the world. If these students are forced to go back to their countries, it would be a huge gain for India/China and a huge loss for America.

I don’t see how America can stay at the forefront of science and technology if they stop attracting and retaining the smartest minds in the world.

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