Taken for(immi)granted: Making sense of Trump's foreign students' rule

Economic Times, July 9 2020

I came to Princeton University to do a Ph.D. in Economics in the academic year 1974/75. Princeton offered me full fellowship consisting of tuition and a stipend to defray the cost of basic necessities of life. Many of my American classmates—no less talented—paid their own way. At the personal level, I have always felt that this was an act of great generosity by Princeton and America. They not only recognized my talent but also provided funds to help me realize my potential.

            Nevertheless, as I began to understand America better, I also realized that America and American universities nurtured talented students from around the world in their enlightened self-interest. It is these students and world-class faculty that make U.S. universities great. They pick the best students and faculty wherever they exist. That does huge good to America and, indeed, the world by accelerating the process of research and innovation.

            Today, in addition to these difficult-to-measure benefits, foreign students also confer sizeable tangible benefits on the U.S. economy. In the academic year 1974/75 when I came to Princeton, the total number of foreign students in the U.S. higher education institutions (HEIs) was only 155,000. They accounted for 1.5% of all students in higher education in the United States. By 2018/19, the total number of foreign students had risen to 1.1 million and their share in all students in higher education to 5.5%.

            The U.S. Department of Commerce estimates that these foreign students contributed $45 billion to the U.S. economy in 2018 through tuition fees, rental payments and other expenditures. According to the Open Doors 2019 report by the Institute of International Education, 62% of all international students received the majority of their funding in 2019 from sources outside of the United States. Finally, the National Association of Foreign Student Affairs estimates that foreign students created or supported some 458,290 jobs in the academic year 2018/19 in the United States.

            Unfortunately, however, enlightened self-interest has been losing ground to narrower interests. This change has been most visible in the immigration policy and has now begun to penetrate other areas of policy as well. To some degree, the recent decision by the U.S. government to deny visas to foreign students taking classes exclusively online in the face of Covid-19 reflects this same trend.

            In fairness, traditionally, immigration laws in the United States have allowed foreign students to take only one online course in a given semester or quarter. But when the threat of Covid-19 descended unexpectedly during this past spring semester and most of the U.S. HEIs decided to switch to online teaching, the U.S. government gave foreign students an exemption from this rule, permitting them to take all courses online. Later, the government extended this exemption to courses in the summer.

            But as the fall 2020 semester approaches, the government has decided that it will allow foreign students to stay on US soil only if they take one or more courses taught in-person. For students at universities such as Columbia, which have opted for a hybrid system in the fall whereby all courses will be available online plus some courses will be taught in-person while being simultaneously provided online, students will be able to stay in the U.S. by enrolling in one or more courses in the latter category. But students at universities such as Harvard and Yale, which have decided not to offer any in-person classes this fall, the same option does not exist. As things stand, foreign students at these universities will have to return home until the latter begin in-person classes.

            On the surface, this measure makes little sense. In the long run, it has no real effect since business as usual will return as soon as Covid-19 is brought under control. In the short run, it marginally hurts the U.S. economy by cutting a source of demand for goods and services at a time when the economy needs demand stimulus. The only explanation for the measure is that it sits well with anti-immigration lobbies and, more importantly, promotes President Donald Trump’s agenda of opening educational institutions to in-person classes.

            Trump has been pushing schools hard to begin in-person classes, threatening to cut federal aid to them if they do not do so. He would like HEIs to do the same. But HEIs in the United States have full autonomy of operation. Therefore, Trump has chosen to use the only instrument available to him: deny visas to foreign students at universities that do not offer in-person classes.

            Universities are, of course, not about to give up. Like India, the United States is a country of laws and provides recourse against unjust rules. On July 8, 2020, both Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology sued Trump administration in the federal court in Boston asking it to block the directive on student visas. They have sought a temporary restraining order to prevent the government from enforcing the policy on the grounds that it violates the Administrative Procedure Act. “The order came down without notice—its cruelty surpassed only by its recklessness,” said Harvard President Lawrence Bacow. Many other HEIs intend to join the legal fight.