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Capricious Policy Changes to the Student Visa Program Will Have Consequences for Our Research and Economy

In July 2020, Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced that students who are enrolled in strictly online curricula due to COVID-19 for the fall semester would have to return to their home countries or transfer to a school offering in-person or hybrid curricula. The Trump administration later rescinded the announcement after Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sued the U.S. government, arguing that the rule change represented an “arbitrary and capricious” action in violation of the Administrative Procedures Act. Both the announcement and its reversal came suddenly, just weeks before the first day of the fall semester. If the policy had been successfully implemented, it could have forced thousands of international students to leave midway through their academic pursuits in the United States. Creating such an environment of undue pressure could hinder individuals from taking their merits from the classroom to our labor markets, ultimately having consequences for our economy, especially for the COVID-19 recovery.

According to the Institute of International Education, approximately 136,000 undergraduate foreign students are about to enter their junior and senior years of college for the 2020-2021 academic year, the majority of them in the science, technology, engineering, and math fields. Additionally, the bulk of international students self-fund their education in the United States. In the 2018-19 academic year, 83.5% of international undergraduate students’ university costs were paid for by the students or their family members, rather than through scholarships or financial aid. Policy uncertainty for international students may drive them to find other countries that provide a more viable option for their educational needs. The new foreign student enrollment rate for the 2020-2021 academic year is already projected to decline anywhere from 63% to 98% since 2018-2019 academic year, the lowest since World War II. Capricious policy change announcements that create an unstable environment for the international student body and hinder their pursuit of academic study in the United States could lead to lower future enrollment rates of foreign students in U.S. institutions, impacting university and college finances.

Declining student enrollment rates could also have major impacts on valuable research fields since the majority of international students engage in STEM programs of study. For example, in the 2018-19 academic year, 230,780 foreign students graduated with an engineering degree, 203,461 with a math or computer science degree, and 182,170 with a business and management degree. These were the top three areas of study for foreign students. Recent studies suggest that significant reductions in international students in the United States could hamper the commitment to research of United States academic institutions, where a significant portion of these students participate, and may impede universities’ continued contribution to research and development in the STEM fields.

According to Student and Exchange Visitor Information System data on foreign student employer records, from 2008 to 2018 the 10 companies that hired the most students on STEM optional practical training were technology-based (Figure 1). Companies often hire foreign students for innovative research and technological advancement that benefits the United States. Since 2007, when the STEM OPT program was initiated, the number of international students receiving employment authorization documents based on STEM OPT increased from two to 70,000 in 2018. Firms that drive innovation, research, finance, and technology in the United States have stated that they would economically suffer without the contribution of talented international students.

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Figure 1. Top 10 Employers for STEM OPT Students

Source: SEVP DATA Library

EmployerNumber of Students Participating in STEM OPT 2008-2018
Amazon4,658
Intel Corporation 2,556
Google 2,223
Microsoft 1,737
Integra Technologies LLC 1,291
Deloitte1,267
IBM1,201
Qualcomm Technologies, Inc 1,171
Facebook978
Apple, Inc 931

Inviting and hosting foreign students in the United States is a win-win scenario. International students gain valuable education from our universities and colleges and an understanding of and appreciation for America and our people, often creating connections that foster better relations between our countries in the future. American students benefit from the diversity of experiences, cultures, and perspectives that international students bring. Foreign students that stay in the United States contribute their talents to our economy and labor markets. Impeding their pursuit of academic excellence, in the middle of a pandemic, could not only negatively impact the economy in the long-term but also diminish this “free” exercise of soft diplomacy to the world.

Foreign students are essential for fostering an exchange of different ideas and promoting a diverse learning atmosphere on our campuses. They help create a valuable and distinct learning and working environment that benefits all Americans, both inside and outside of the classroom. Creating an environment that fosters learning and growth for our students will help us in the COVID-19 recovery. This is important since many other countries are competing for global talent to remain internationally competitive. If we want to make sure that we remain a top destination for talented students who contribute to our economy, we must ensure that our policy changes remain consistent and do not create havoc for our international students.

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