Americans are more likely than not to say students from other countries have a positive impact on United States higher education and society, but offer mixed views about whether they would like universities to step up efforts to reverse recent enrolment declines, a study suggests.
The study, which is based on three iterations of surveys of registered voters conducted between March 2017 and February 2021, paints what it calls a “complex, evolving and nuanced public view” of how US voters perceived international students during perhaps the most volatile and politicised period of higher education policy-making since the September 2001 terrorist attacks.
It was sponsored by the American Council on Education (ACE), the primary representative in Washington for university leaders.
Overall, US international enrolments declined 1.8% in 2019, according to the Institute of International Education (IIE), which has tracked student mobility trends for decades.
IIE data also show that international students contributed an estimated US$44 billion to the US economy that year. But the US’s global share has diminished in recent years as more countries are competing in the recruitment of students from outside their borders.
Last year, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, international student enrolments dropped 16% overall and 43% among new international students. Even before that, the Trump administration had introduced more restrictive visa policies that worried ACE members.
The study does not mention former president Donald Trump or details of his visa policy changes, except to note that 41% of respondents said they voted for Trump in the 2020 election and 50% said they voted for Joe Biden. As president, Biden has lifted many immigration restrictions established during the Trump administration but has not addressed some of them.
Meanwhile, the US Senate is considering similar restrictions in its Safeguarding American Innovation Act, which calls for new limits on visiting foreign scientists and stricter disclosure of foreign gifts to US universities. ACE argues the measures are “unnecessary and could be used to undermine valuable and important scientific activities”.
American competitiveness and national security
The public appears to recognise in growing numbers the value international students bring to the United States. Overall, 55% of 1,000 registered voters in 2021 agreed that the United States should encourage more international students to study in the US in order to “strengthen the US economy and contribute to international competitiveness”. That’s up from 50% in 2017.
Yet just 33% said the United States “should go out of its way” to try to reverse the dramatic drop in new international students last year at the height of the pandemic. More generally, 49% said “the US should not go out of its way” to increase international student enrolments.
“No matter how the question is asked, the public does not see a need to increase international student numbers,” the report says. “Quantity simply is not compelling in and of itself.”
Asked about immigration policy, 18% of respondents said visas should be easier to obtain; 44% said they should stay “as they are now”, and 26% said they should be harder to obtain.
Moreover, sizeable minorities of respondents expressed concern about the presence of international students in the United States. For example, 37% said international students are not properly vetted and therefore pose a security risk; 41% said they believe some international students are sent by their country to try and steal US intellectual property; and 37% said they believe some students overstay their visas.
Perceptions of impact
In addition, 43% said they believe international students “take seats” or university or college places that would otherwise have gone to US students, up from 37% in 2017. (Also up: 57% said they “believe” most international students are better prepared for college than American students; that figure was 53% in 2019.)
Also, 31% said they “do not believe” that international students pay full tuition fees, though many do, especially undergraduates. In fact, because “many are paying full freight”, colleges and universities can offer more grants and scholarships to US students, according to report co-author Sarah Spreitzer.
Among the more troubling findings, Spreitzer said, was “this continuing belief that [international] students take seats from domestic students” and the assumption that they are getting a ‘full ride’ (full scholarship) is “very problematic”.
Nevertheless, findings offer promising evidence that “there continues to be support for international students and scholars ... even with the ups and downs” of the last four years, Spreitzer said. The public generally recognises short- and long-term benefits both in educating international students and retaining them after they graduate.
Other findings include:
• 68% agreed that American college students benefit from having international students as classmates, up from 60% in 2017.
• 58% agreed that international students bring “intellectual talent and energy” to campuses.
• 55% agreed that “it is in America’s interest to be the top destination” for university study.
• 55% agreed that international students who remain in the United States after completing their degrees “enhance our workforce by filling critical jobs in tech and STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] and boost our economy”.
• 52% favoured “a proposal that would make it easier for students with advanced STEM degrees to stay in the United States after graduation”.
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