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Foreign students show less zeal for US since Trump took over

2016 marked the start of a steep decline of new enrollees, something expected to continue with fresh rules limiting student visas, competition from other countries, and a haphazard coronavirus response. The effect on the workforce will be considerable, experts predict, no matter the outcome of November's election.

By: PTI | New Delhi | October 26, 2020 5:25:06 pm
study abroad, study visa US, america study visa, education news, study abroad,International students coming to US dropped from 28% in 2001 to 21% last year, according to the Association of International Educators, or NAFSA. (Image: Pexels/Representational)

On a recruiting trip to India’s tech hub of Bangalore, Alan Cramb, the president of a reputable Chicago University, answered questions not just about dorms or tuition but also American work visas.

The session with parents fell in the chaotic first months of Donald Trump’s presidency. After an inaugural address proclaiming America first, two travel bans, a suspended refugee program, and hints at restricting skilled worker visas widely used by Indians, parents doubted their children’s futures in the U.S.

Read | Planning for overseas education during Covid-19? Here’s how to prepare

Nothing is happening here that isn’t being watched or interpreted around the world, said Cramb, who leads the Illinois Institute of Technology, where international scholars have been half the student body.

America was considered the premier destination for international students, with the promise of top-notch universities and unrivaled job opportunities. Yet, 2016 marked the start of a steep decline of new enrollees, something expected to continue with fresh rules limiting student visas, competition from other countries, and a haphazard coronavirus response. The effect on the workforce will be considerable, experts predict, no matter the outcome of November’s election.

Read | UK opens new ‘simplified’ points-based student visa route

Trump has arguably changed the immigration system more than any US president, thrilling supporters with a nationalist message and infuriating critics who call the approach to his signature issue insular, xenophobic, and even racist. Before the election, The Associated Press is examining some of his immigration policies, including restrictions on international students.

For colleges that fear dwindling tuition and companies that worry about losing talent, the broader impact is harder to quantify: America seemingly losing its luster on a global stage.

It’s not as attractive as it once was, said Dodeye Ewa, who’s finishing high school in Calabar, Nigeria.

Unlike two older siblings who left for US schools, the aspiring pediatrician is focused on Canada. In America, she fears bullying for being an international student and a Black woman.

Read | Fee-waivers, IELTS relaxation: What are foreign universities offering to enroll international students

Trump senior adviser Stephen Miller predicted that after a COVID-19 vaccine, an improving economy would draw talent.

“Our superior economic position is going to mean that the world’s most talented doctors, scientists, technicians, engineers, etc., will all be thinking of the United States as their first country of destination,” Miller told the AP.

Roughly 5.3 million students study outside their home countries, a number that’s more than doubled since 2001. But the U.S. share dropped from 28% in 2001 to 21% last year, according to the Association of International Educators, or NAFSA.

New international students in America have declined for three straight years: a 3% drop in the 2016 school year the first in about a decade followed by 7% and 1% dips, according to the Institute of International Education, which releases an annual November report. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s fall snapshot shows a 13.7% drop in undergraduate international students.
The government cites high college costs, but students tell another story.

Read | How coronavirus disrupted Indian students’ study abroad dream

I feel I am more comfortable in my home country, said Priyadharshini Alagiri, 22, of India, who’s pursuing a master’s in electrical and computer engineering at IIT.

The Chicago university known for engineering, computer science, and architecture saw a 25% decline in international students from fall 2016 to fall 2018.

Alagiri said the pandemic exacerbated things, including a short-lived Trump administration rule requiring international students to leave if their schools held online-only classes. Students panicked, universities protested and lawsuits followed.

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The Department of Homeland Security then unveiled draft rules last month imposing fixed student visa terms. Instead of being valid while students are enrolled, visas could be limited to four years, with students from countries including Iran and Syria eligible for two years.

Federal officials say it’s a way to fight fraud and overstaying visas. But colleges call it another barrier.

Right out of the gate, you had the first travel ban, and that really crystalized for students and scholars what was perceived as rhetoric really would translate into actual policy and create a tremendous amount of uncertainty, said Rachel Banks, a director at NAFSA. If I choose to study in the U.S. will I be able to finish? There haven’t been many reassurances.

Read | Dear Class of 2020, you are the chosen ones: Letters to graduating batches from around the world

The Trump administration has floated curtailing Optional Practical Training, a popular program allowing international students to work. Roughly 223,000 participated in 2018-19, according to the Institute of International Education.

This month, the administration announced plans to limit H1-B skilled-worker visas, often a path for foreign students. It was pitched as a way to address pandemic-related job losses, following a June order temporarily suspending H1-Bs. It’s prompted a lawsuit.

Democrat Joe Biden has promised to reverse some Trump immigration orders. He’s pitched more skilled-worker visas and giving foreign graduates of U.S. doctoral programs a pathway to citizenship.

Dodeye Ewa’s brother Wofai Ewa, an IIT senior studying mechanical engineering, wants to stay in America but worries about his options. He understands his sister’s doubts.

Trump’s disparaging words on immigrants have irked him, including the tone surrounding a January rule to curb family-based immigration from Nigeria and other countries.

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