The fallout from the immigration debate doesn’t end at the border wall.
President Donald Trump’s words and policies are affecting legal immigration, too, and the consequences are evident at U.S. universities.
Last year, applications to graduate programs from international students declined for the second year in a row, and even fast-growing Texas colleges have not been immune.
In the past two years, the number of international students enrolled at public universities statewide declined 9 percent while total head count continued to grow. Among international students pursuing master’s degrees, the fall was sharper — almost 25 percent, or more than 5,000 students in Texas.
“It started two years ago, and I call it the Trump effect,” said Kishore Khandavalli, founder and CEO of Seven Tablets, a North Texas company that makes mobile applications. “The president and agencies have put up so many roadblocks that people just don’t know if they’ll be able to work here. Why would bright students risk their careers to deal with such uncertainty?”
This is bad news for schools, communities and the economy, because international students often have an outsize impact.
In Texas, they spend a combined $1.5 billion a year and often pay higher tuition than residents. They supported almost 19,000 jobs in 2014, according to New American Economy, an advocate for pro-growth immigration policies.
These students often play important research roles at leading universities. At least one foreign-born inventor was involved in almost three-quarters of the patents awarded to the University of Texas System in 2011, the group said.
International students also provide a talent pipeline for local companies. They often major in science, technology, engineering and math — the so-called STEM fields in high demand. In Texas, they accounted for over one-third of master’s graduates and almost half of doctorates in STEM in 2014.
The president’s “America First” program isn’t working as intended, Khandavalli said. His 35-person company tried to add 10 tech employees for the last year and finally had to send some work to Brazil, India and Eastern Europe.
“We can’t get enough talent locally,” said Khandavalli, who came to the U.S. as a college student 27 years ago and later started several companies.
Texas ranks third in international students, trailing only California and New York. Two local schools, the University of Texas at Dallas and the University of Texas at Arlington, have had rapid growth in that segment. That boosted total enrollment and contributed to a big increase in research funding, which elevated the schools’ reputation.
But the number of international students peaked two years ago for UTD and UTA, according to data from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Since then, the decline has been most severe among those in master’s programs.
“Their calculus is simple: If they’re going to put more time and money into education, they want to make sure the investment pays off,” said Jeanne Batalova, senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington.
The falling numbers are meaningful, in part because master’s students have many options to study elsewhere. Canada, for instance, has adopted policies to speed student visas and approvals for foreign workers — an approach that’s paying off.
Two years ago, international students in Canada grew 20 percent. Last year, their numbers increased 16 percent, setting another record, according to the Canadian Bureau for International Education. The agency said Canada’s “reputation as a safe and tolerant country” was one of the reasons cited by new international students.
Trump’s focus on illegal immigration has had an impact on attitudes. In a fall 2017 survey, over 500 U.S. schools were asked what contributed to declines in international applications. More than half of the colleges cited the social and political environment in the U.S. Nearly as many said students felt unwelcome in America.
Since then, there have also been changes to visa applications and processes. That makes it harder for students to remain here, Batalova said, and has discouraged applicants.
“It’s both the perception and the reality,” she said, noting that Trump previously called for cutting legal immigration in half.
The travel ban to eight countries, including Syria, Iran and Yemen, led to 37,000 visa applications being rejected. New rules on H-1B visas tightened definitions of eligible occupations, suspended faster processing for employers, increased demands for additional evidence and reduced the acceptance rate for applications, said Dan Wallace, director of special projects for New American Economy.
Immigration applications were lengthened, adding complexity and often requiring more applicants to hire lawyers, he said.
“Beyond the rhetoric and the wall, there’s been a behind-the-scenes attack on legal avenues for immigration,” Wallace said. “Adding all these steps just slows things down and trips people up. While we’re moving in this direction, other countries are moving the opposite way.”
Like Canada, Australia has been increasing international students by double-digit rates. France and Germany have shown solid growth recently, too.
One of their top targets is India, a major source of student growth and research for UTD and UTA. Last year, applications from India for U.S. graduate schools dropped 12 percent. The year before, applications from India declined 15 percent, according to the Council of Graduate Schools.
Not coincidentally, Canada reported that India surpassed China as the top sender of international students in 2018.
“What changed?” Khandavalli said. “The presidential administration changed.”