Trump's Xenophobia is Harming America's Public Higher Education

Trump's Xenophobia is Harming America's Public Higher Education

President Trump's foreign policy was criticized in 2018 for alienating allies, undermining international law, and threatening the welfare of American firms and workers.

Looking forward, the White House's combativeness toward much of the world is starting to have a separate, underappreciated effect: It is putting our public colleges and universities — long an essential rung on the ladder of social mobility — under greater financial pressure.  

The well-being of higher education in America matters not only to the future of citizens who cannot afford private colleges and universities, but also to the competitiveness of the United States, particularly in an international economy that now contains an unprecedented number of rivals.

Public colleges and universities in the United States have been relentlessly squeezed by systematic funding cutbacks by state governments during the last decade.

Public expenditure per student fell in 46 states between 2008 and 2016. The U.S. now ranks behind 21 other OECD countries, all of which increased spending in the last decade. These nations did so because their leaders are well aware that education contributes to technological innovation and productivity — and, by extension, to economic growth, competitiveness, and social mobility.  

Faced with reduced state funding, public college and universities have come to rely more heavily on tuition revenues. Unsurprisingly, tuition in four-year schools has increased by 35 percent since the Great Recession. 

That has made education costlier, or even unaffordable, to low-income students, hurting their chances for social mobility. Worse, those students least able to handle greater financial burdens may be in for additional tuition hikes.

Borrowing to cover the costs is certainly an option, but that poses its own risks. The total debt American students incurred to pay for college was north of $1.5 trillion as of last June.  

To offset the reduction in funding from state governments, America's colleges and universities have been vying fiercely for international students, especially those who are able to pay full freight. Since 2008, international students increased from three to five percent of total enrollments.

Chinese nationals account for the largest proportion of international enrollments. In 2015, roughly 279,000 students from mainland China held F-1 (student) visas — way more than those from India, which was in second place with 77,000. Between 2007 and 2015, the number of Chinese student visa holders increased more than six-fold.

But things are changing, and American colleges and universities may not be able to count on international students serving as cash cows.

Since 2015, international student enrollment in the United States has fallen by 40 percent. One of the largest falloffs involves students from China, whose numbers have plunged from 279,000 to 116,000.

The decline can't be attributed to a global trend. Consider Canada. Fewer international students study there than in the US, but international enrollment in Canadian universities has been increasing — by a whopping 44 percent. What's more, the number of Chinese students in Canada increased by 26 percent at the same time that they were falling in the US.

Rising tuition surely helps to explain part of this big drop off, but the Trump administration's harsh foreign policy rhetoric has made matters worse.

The president's labeling of Chinese students as "spies" and talk of reducing the number of educational visas issued to Chinese citizens has made the United States appear less welcoming. Ditto Trump's continual bashing of other countries, including long-time friends and allies. 

Then there are his xenophobia-tinged statements on immigration and religion-based limits on travel to the United States. The president has labelled undocumented Mexicans and Central Americans rapists and "animals" and imposed successive travel bans on a number of Islamic countries.  

These moves are bound to make students, especially from non-Western countries, above all Muslim ones, leery about applying to American colleges.

In this respect the Trump administration's trade war matters as well. Beyond imposing sweeping tariff increases, the president has complained without let up that other countries discriminate against American exports, engage in currency manipulation to reduce the price of their exports, steal technology from US companies, and generally play the United States for a fool. 

Charges like these, especially when accompanied by threats of retaliation, hardly help sell America's public colleges and universities to students from other countries.

The net effect is that the strategy of wooing international students in order to help offset the reduction in state support may prove unsustainable. Already, the pinch produced by declining international enrollments has forced some of them to eliminate courses and programs as well as staff.

All of this sits uneasily with Trump's America First slogan and his much-vaunted business savvy. The principal beneficiaries of declining international student enrollments in American institutions have been universities in China, Japan, Canada, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. These countries also just happen to be America’s major competitors in the global marketplace. 

Jeffrey Kucik is an assistant professor at the University of Arizona. Rajan Menon is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of International Relations at the Powell School, City College of New York.

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