The loss of international students during the COVID-19 pandemic could cost the US economy $45 billion and result in the loss of thousands of jobs, experts warn.
In July of 2020, universities and foreign students throughout the country were stunned by the Trump administration’s decision to issue a regulation that would prevent students from overseas from entering the US and ask those already in the country to leave if their schools will only be offering online classes in the fall.
The implementation of the order could severely impact the lives of over 1 million international students who make up about 5.5 percent of the total number of college students in the US.
According to the 2019 Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange, most international students in the US between 2018 and 2019 were from China (369,548), India (202,014), South Korea (52,250), Saudi Arabia (37,080), and Canada (26,122).
A lawsuit filed following the announcement prompted the Trump administration to reverse its decision. At the time, some students who were worried about the status of their visas had reportedly already begun transferring to schools with in-person classes which could put their lives at risk.
The lawsuit, filed by Harvard and MIT, was backed by over 200 universities and more than a dozen tech companies including Microsoft, Facebook, Google, and Spotify.
In a court brief, the coalition warned that without international students, American institutions could face a sudden loss of critical mass which would affect their ability to maintain their standards of excellence, provide training that makes US students a strong talent pool for employers, and produce research that would help American businesses stay on the cutting edge of innovation.
At the same time, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healy led a coalition of 18 attorney generals in filing a multi-state lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security and ICE, calling the policy “cruel, abrupt, and unlawful.”
Economists at the UC Davis Global Migration Center argued that this decision to prevent international students from entering or staying in the country could result in “immediate” and “devastating” consequences to the economy in the short and long term.
International students contributed around $45 billion to the US economy in 2018, mainly from tuition fees and living expenses. International students normally pay higher tuition than local students and usually pay upfront and in full.
NAFSA, a non-profit organization based in Washington, DC, said in May of 2020 that the US had already lost around $1 billion as a result of canceled or shortened study abroad programs, and US colleges may lose at least $3 billion from a decrease in enrollment of international students.
In April of 2020, NAFSA conducted a survey and found that 78 percent of international students said that they will not enroll in US colleges in the coming fall due to the pandemic. This may lead to a domino effect which could negatively impact other industries as well.
According to NAFSA, three US jobs are created for every seven international students, supported by spending in higher education and numerous other sectors, including accommodation, retail, dining, telecommunications, transportation, and health insurance.
During the 2018-2019 academic year, foreign students in California contributed about $6.8 billion to the state’s economy and created 74,814 jobs. In New York, there were about $5.3 billion in contributions, creating 59,586 jobs. Massachusetts, another state with a large number of international students, had around $3.2 billion and 38,799 jobs.
Many foreign students also continue to contribute to the economy after they graduate.
According to the non-profit, non-partisan organization National Foundation for American Policy, or NFAP, around one-quarter of the founders of unicorn startups — those with a valuation of over $1 billion — were international students.
The NFAP also said that the shortage of international students could slow scientific progress as many of them are enrolled in STEM programs. Over 75% of those in computer science and industrial engineering programs and more than 80% in electrical and petroleum engineering programs are from overseas.
Jenny Lee, a professor at the University of Arizona, described the ICE policy as a cruel attempt by the government to strong-arm universities to resume in-person classes. She also said that forcing those already in the US to leave could increase the risk of spreading COVID-19 globally.
Following the backlash, the US Department of Homeland Security reverted to the original policy that was issued in March of 2020, allowing students who are F-1 visa holders to stay in the country while taking their classes online.