A third-generation immigrant student graduates from university with his grandmother beside him.

Trump’s Anti-immigrant Policy – Hurting Graduate Schools And Global Competitiveness

by Tony Wyman

The impact on graduate schools of Trump’s anti-immigrant policy

If you attend a graduation ceremony this summer, one thing that is likely to catch your attention is the number of foreign-sounding names receiving advanced degrees, particularly ones in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields.

Many of these students are the second- or third-generation offspring of immigrants, legal and otherwise, entering the United States to make a better life for themselves and their children and grandchildren.

Like many immigrants before them, they have taken advantage of the opportunities available to them in the United States they didn’t have in their home countries.  Despite prejudice, language and cultural barriers, and income levels that make attending college difficult, second-generation immigrants are remarkably successful academically speaking, matching and, in some ways, besting the achievements of their native-born peers. 

According to statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Census, a larger percentage of foreign-born immigrants (13.6%) are getting graduate degrees than are native-born students (12.4%).

Foreign-born students getting graduate degrees outpace native-born ones.
In 2016, foreign-born students led native-born students in the attainment of advanced degrees, by nearly 1.5% points. When adding second-generation immigrants, the gaps widens to 6% points.

And when you add second-generation immigrants to the numbers, the gap between native Americans and immigrant Americans widens, 15% compared to 12.4% for those born in the U.S.

Because so many of their students are either foreigners studying in America or immigrants, their children or grandchildren – graduate schools are increasingly dependent on the funds those with last names like Patel, Chen, Nguyen and Sanchez bring to their programs. 

In fact, concerns among deans of many of the nation’s leading programs have gone up at a pace matching the alarming decline of immigrant student enrollment at their schools.

America’s Role as Global Technology Under Assault

Vanderbilt University Dean of Engineering, Philippe Fauchet called the 18% decline in enrollment of foreign-born and immigrant students his school saw in the 2017/18 school year “precipitous.”  His perspective was mirrored by other deans in STEM programs concerned about the shrinking pool of foreign students, as much as 30% in some schools.

Tim Anderson, dean of engineering at University of Massachusetts said, “Your first thought is, ‘Is it just us?'” but he believes the 30% decline his school experienced in applications from international students saw in electrical and computer engineering students is “a pattern.”

In addition to concerns their schools will be impacted financially by the drop in foreign and immigrants students, deans are worried their schools will suffer a loss of talent needed to do critical and often lucrative research their programs rely upon both for funding and to bolster their reputations as leading technology schools.

This loss in talent could even threaten America’s global leadership as the world’s superpower in technology and engineering.

And, considering that most foreign students in STEM programs take jobs with American firms after they graduate, many, eventually, becoming American citizens, the talent drain now seen at universities across the country could soon hit companies like Apple, IBM, Honeywell and other leading technology companies.

The America First Impact 

While schools started reporting some slowing of foreign and immigrant enrollment as early as 2014, the real drop started after the 2016 election of President Donald Trump. In fact, 2016’s 3% drop in foreign enrollment was the first such decline the nation had seen in more than 12 years. 

The State Department recently reported the number of F-1 visas issued to foreign students wishing to attend American universities declined by 17% in the school year ending in September 2017.  The biggest drop by student’s nation of origin was from Chinese and Indian students, those most likely to study STEM curriculum.

Foreign-born STEM students
Foreign students, first and second generation STEM students make up an increasingly important segment of America’s university programs. Without them, the position of the U.S. as the world’s leader in science and technology is threatened.

While factors such as increasing tuition costs and improved opportunities to study at other English-speaking countries like Canada and Australia have contributed to the decline, deans say America’s current anti-immigrant, anti-foreigner climate is the major reason students are going elsewhere.

“The current administration’s ‘America First’ mantra is causing [international students] a great deal of anxiety and fear,” said University of Tulsa in Oklahoma Vice-president of Enrollment and Student Services Earl Johnson.  He said the decline in revenue has hurt the school badly enough they have opened a recruitment office in China to try to lure students to his school.

Other schools are seeing a similar impact to revenue because of declines in foreign student enrollment and they’ve taken to cutting programs to make up for the drop.  Wright State University in Ohio eliminated their French horn and tuba professorships and dropped the school’s highly successful swimming team. 

Kansas State dropped the study of Italian and the University of Central Missouri is no longer printing a school newspaper, choosing, instead, to print it online, only.  These cuts are relatively painless, as they affect only a segment of each school’s students, but if the decline of foreign students – many of whom pay as much as twice what an American student pays to attend – continues, further cuts will have to be made.

America’s History of Welcoming Foreign Students Threatened

The uncertainty the president’s anti-immigration policies and often belligerent-sounding rhetoric has led to foreign students feeling unwelcome in a country that has, traditionally, been the most friendly to pupils from other countries.

Even in the current climate of hostility towards foreigners and recent immigrants, more than one million foreign and immigrant students studied in American universities in 2017/18.  Indiana University, for example, a school system of 110,000 students, boasted 9000 foreign students from 144 nations in 2017.

But the climate that lured many students here has changed to such a degree it is having the opposite effect.  Allan Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education, a non-profit group that works to “build more peaceful and equitable societies by advancing scholarship, building economies and promoting access to opportunity,” told CNN that the drumbeat of negativity permeating segments of American society is a factor in decisions foreign students make before deciding to come here or go somewhere else to learn.

“Inevitably, it does lead them to ask, ‘Will I be welcome here?” Mr. Goodman said. “It’s a fairly uncertain time for all higher education institutions in the US.”

Immigrants winning Nobel Prizes
Over the past 17 years, 38% of Nobel Prizes awarded to Americans in chemistry and medicine and 40% in physics have gone to foreign-born immigrants to this country.

Mr. Goodman added that competition for foreign students is heating up as other nations realize how much money these students bring to the host country and how valuable they are to the economies of the country in which they learn, particularly when they take a job in the host nation and stay. 

Goodman said that America once hosted almost 50% of the students studying abroad.  Now that number is down to 24%. 

Other countries are making it easier for foreign students to study there and to stay after they graduate, while the U.S. is making it much harder.


Ultimately, the impact of Mr. Trump’s policy shift will lead to fewer foreign-born students staying here and becoming American citizens.  And that will, in turn, hurt American global competitiveness.

“Having international students benefits the United States in many areas, in science and technology, even the number of Nobel laureates we produce,” Mr. Goodman said.

He is certainly right about the latter claim. Of the 85 winners of Nobel Prizes since 2000, 38 have been foreign-born immigrants, including all six in the science and technology fields in 2016, the year Mr. Trump took office.        

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