The Importance of Reopening the U.S. to International Students

People walking across world map painted on ground

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act—a nearly two trillion-dollar economic stimulus package—attempted to address the new economic realities stemming from the pandemic’s impact. For the higher education sector, the stimulus undoubtedly will help in the short term. However, the package failed to address the long-term impact of falling student enrollment and financial fallout exacerbated by the pandemic. 

U.S. colleges and universities have long set the global standard for research and teaching, drawing students from all over the world to come to the U.S. for higher learning and world-class credentials. Beyond the financial rewards, attending a U.S. college or university provides international students with a deep understanding of democratic culture and values. In many instances, international students bring their education and training back to their home countries, taking on positions of significant influence with a marked appreciation for the American way of life.

A Global Footprint

Indeed, U.S. colleges and universities have played a critical role in public diplomacy. They have seen alumni become leaders and heads of states in their home counties—from Shinzo Abe, Ma Ying-jeou, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Ehud Barak, Pierre Trudeau, Kwame Nkrumah, to Syngman Rhee. They have also seen their alumni become pioneers in tackling the world’s most pressing challenges, such as Moderna founder Noubar Afeyan. 

But beyond naming noteworthy individuals, the reality is that international students play an essential role in American higher education. There are over one million international students enrolled across U.S. colleges and universities. They attend a wide range of institutions, from Harvard to Santa Monica College, across states red and blue. They bring with them their rich cultures and perspectives for the benefit of American students, who must themselves prepare for the opportunities and challenges of globalization.

International students also contribute significantly to the U.S. economy writ large. Last year alone, they contributed $38.7 billion and supported more than 400,000 jobs, with most of that going to state and local economies. In just the District of Columbia, international students contributed nearly $600 million and supported more than 5,700 jobs. As state and local economies continue to face economic downturns, the CARES Act alone cannot address all these challenges. International students must be able to study in the United States to sustain the economic health of our neighborhoods and communities.

Righting the Ship

Unfortunately, since 2016, we’ve witnessed a steady decline in new enrollment by international students. Much of that decline stems from the xenophobia and harmful rhetoric we’ve seen from the previous administration, compounded by international student travel bans and other harmful restrictions. Taken together, they paint a picture that America is no longer a welcoming place for international students.

The Biden administration must take immediate action.

The Biden administration could start by issuing an executive order that would specifically allow for an intergovernmental agency to put processes in place that would ensure every bona fide and qualified international student who wishes to study in the United States can do so. This executive order would lay the groundwork for more policy modifications and help colleges and universities recover from financial fallout.

The longer-term structural changes would include creating a more efficient and effective visa policy that will benefit international students. The recently passed U.S. House immigration bill is a good start. Other measures will be needed.

Otherwise, the United States will continue to lose international students, who will end up choosing alternative countries to study in this fall.

Reopening our country to international students brings benefits across many fronts, from the higher education sector to state and local economies and even foreign policy. 

Most importantly, after the pain and trauma of the last four years, reopening America is one more step to building back better.

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