Why Our Economy Needs International College Students

Photographed by Megan Madden.
International college students in the U.S. have been made to feel extremely unwelcome in the past few months, as the Trump administration goes back-and-forth on whether they will be forced out of the country if their classes are held online. The initial policy, which the administration has since walked back, to have ICE enforce the sudden expulsion of international students, some of whom have nowhere else to go, has been rightly widely criticized for its cruelty. Meanwhile, Bloomberg reports, international students who have remained in college towns — the same ones many domestic students long ago left — have been helping local businesses stay afloat in a time of unprecedented economic suffering.
It brings into focus the impact international students have long had on the U.S. economy. During the 2018-2019 academic year, there were a little over one million international college students — a fraction of the nearly 20 million college students that were enrolled for fall 2019. And yet, according to data from NAFSA: Association of International Educators, they contributed a total of $41 billion to the economy. In states like California, international students contributed almost $7 billion to its economy, supporting or creating 74,814 jobs. In Texas, they contributed $2.2 billion and 25,034 jobs; in Florida, $1.6 billion and 16,458 jobs.
Many international students were essentially stuck in the U.S. after COVID-19 travel restrictions and lockdowns began in the spring, with around 92% staying in the country. According to a survey by the Institute of International Education, the majority of international students who were enrolled for spring 2020 plan to continue attending their institution. Around 88% of colleges say they expect an overall decline in international enrollment in the 2020-2021 academic year, with some estimates projecting a 25% decline. Most international students pay full tuition, and this signals a worrying future for higher education institutions already losing a significant source of funding.
Even before COVID-19, international student enrollment had been in a decline over the past several years. A NAFSA report on the downward trend notes that “anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies” have been a contributing factor in the decline in attracting talented students from abroad. The U.S. share of international students compared to the rest of the world decreased from 28% in 2001 to 21% in 2019. Meanwhile, China, Canada, and the U.K. have gained a greater share of the international student market in recent years.
It’s clear that the U.S. is losing a competitive edge in recruiting overseas students, and it’s likely to have a considerable impact on both the quality of the student body at colleges as well as the larger economy. Despite the Trump administration’s continued promises to improve the U.S. economy, in part by creating millions of new jobs, it has actively alienated international students. Though international students in the U.S. come from a variety of backgrounds, over half come from China and India. In recent months, the U.S.-China relationship has become tense, from Trump’s racist blaming of China for COVID-19 to his efforts to ban TikTok, which is owned by Chinese company ByteDance. 
In late July, President Trump said his administration would not follow through with the plan  to remove students after all, saying that now only new international students would be barred from entering the U.S. But the xenophobic intent of the policy, as well as the catastrophic U.S. response to the pandemic, may have soured many students across the country from studying here for the foreseeable future.

More from Work & Money

R29 Original Series