The impacts of a new Immigration and Customs Enforcement policy requiring international students on F-1 visas to leave the country if their university transitions to online-only learning in the fall could be wide-ranging and significant.
Not only will the policy present significant hardships to the foreign students, for example as a result of travel restrictions that may prevent them from returning to their home countries, but it is likely to have an adverse impact on the economy at a time when higher education finances have already been thrown into disarray.
Based on BPC estimates, international graduate and undergraduate students pay roughly $20 billion per year in tuition and fees, providing a crucial source of revenue for many institutions. International students are more likely to pay the full published price for tuition and fees, giving colleges the flexibility to reduce these prices for domestic students. International graduate and undergraduate students contribute an estimated 14% of total tuition revenues at four-year institutions annually, despite comprising just around 6% of total enrollment. These revenues are especially important in the context of COVID-19, as enrollment is already projected to decrease by 15% percent this year, leading to an estimated $23 billion decline in revenues, as more students defer enrollment or choose to attend less-expensive institutions closer to home.
Additionally, international students contribute considerably to overall economic growth. Based on estimates from NAFSA: Association of International Educators, international students spurred $41 billion in economic activity in 2018, supporting close to a half a million jobs. These economic benefits extend beyond the higher education sector and bolster a range of industries, including retail, food services, and housing. Additionally, international education was the fifth largest export in 2018, according to the Department of Commerce, valued at around $45 billion. International scholars are also disproportionately likely to specialize in STEM fields, providing valuable research and development that helps to power the economy. Requiring international students to leave the country would only further hamstring economic growth during the worst downturn in a generation, especially for cities and communities in which educational institutions are a main source of economic activity.
Ultimately, policymakers would be wise to consider the many economic benefits provided by international students, and take action to ensure that these individuals can continue their studies in the United States regardless of whether their schools move online this fall.