The Trump administration recently announced a policy change regarding international students, proposing to eliminate a historic rule that allowed international students to be present in the country for as long as they are engaged in their programs. This change is one of many that seek to disincentivize international students from coming to America and staying here after their studies. In the wake of this policy, it is important to look critically at the importance of international students to American higher education.
The importance of international students to U.S. higher education is not something that can be distilled into just one characteristic. It cannot just be qualified by the colossal economic contributions — $41 billion to the U.S. economy during the 2018-19 academic year — to the U.S. economy. Instead, it is something that must be felt to appreciate it.
To understand the importance of international students, one must walk on several college campuses across the United States and see the intricate network of relationships between international and domestic students to understand that without international students, college life will be almost joyless.
One must sit in on class discussions about apartheid, medieval African history and the effects of communism to appreciate the unique perspectives international students bring to these discussions. There is no better way to learn about the effects of apartheid than with someone who has firsthand experience and lived through it; there is no better way to learn Swahili or Spanish than to have a conversation with a native speaker over lunch. In an increasingly global world, American students benefit from the diverse perspectives international students bring to their campuses and the enrichment they provide to college life in America.
The importance of international scholars to U.S. higher education transcends the unique perspectives they provide across U.S. campuses and the huge impacts they make across several different fields. Some of the most influential scientists in the 20th century were international scholars, including Albert Einstein, whose theory of general relativity provides the foundation of our current understanding of black holes, and John von Neumann, whose theories still have relevance today across several fields.
Today, several international scholars, including author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a famed writer and recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, scientist Thomas Mensah, whose contributions led to the development of fiber optics and nanotechnology and mathematician Terence Tao, a Fields Medal recipient, continue the long list of international scholars whose ingenuity and brilliance advance America’s preeminence in several intellectual disciplines.
Some complain that many international students decide to stay in the United States after their studies, taking job opportunities that could belong to Americans. The actual student visa overstay rate is relatively small — around 3 percent in the fiscal year 2018. This number pales in significance when compared to the numerous contributions of international students after graduation. According to the National Foundation for American Policy, a non-profit, non-partisan organization, one-fourth of the founders of $1 billion U.S. startups were international students.
Notable names include Patrick and John Collison, founders of Stripe, and Elon Musk, founder of Space X and Tesla — which together employ over 56,000 people. These are perfect examples of the importance of international students to the American higher education system and economy at large.
With the proposed policy changes, international students who seek to work or begin a business may have to request an extended status and will be required to leave the country while waiting for approval. This will be demoralizing and expensive for most international students, and they may decide not to return after leaving the country, at a loss for the U.S. economy, which needs the talents and skills of these students.
International students and scholars remain an important part of the U.S. higher education system. Their diverse backgrounds and experiences help enrich American college life and improve the intellectual vitality of American colleges. Much of America’s preeminence in education and technological advancements can be attributed to the contributions of foreign-born students and scholars who studied and worked in America.
In the wake of this anti-international student sentiment, let us not forget that the first African American president of this country was the son of an international student. We must rally to support international students and scholars as integral parts of American higher education.
Ebenezer Mensah PO ’23 is an international student from Ghana.