Catherine Rampell: One of America’s most successful exports is in trouble

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Utah Valley University graduates walk through the school's Hall of Flags at the beginning of commencement in Orem, Thursday, April 28, 2016. UVU awarded 5,409 degrees at its 75th commencement.

One of America’s most successful exports is in trouble.

For decades, the U.S. higher-education system has been the envy of the world. We “sell” much more education to other countries than we “buy” from them; nearly three times as many foreign students are currently studying here as we have abroad.

In trade terms, this means we run a massive surplus in education — about $34 billion in 2017, according to Commerce Department data. Our educational exports are about as big as our total exports of soybeans, coal and natural gas combined).

But all that may be at risk.

A recent report from the Institute of International Education and the State Department found that new international student enrollments fell by 6.6 percent in the 2017-18 school year, the second consecutive year of declines. A separate, more limited IIE survey of schools suggests that the declines continued this fall, too.

To be sure, some of the forces behind these decreases are beyond our (or President Donald Trump’s) control. Some foreign governments, such as Brazil and Saudi Arabia, have reduced the scholarships that previously sent significant numbers of students to the United States, according to Peggy Blumenthal, senior counselor to the president at IIE.

China, whose students represent about a third of U.S. international student enrollment, has been investing in improving its own domestic university system, too.

But according to the schools that are now watching the trend, the biggest forces deterring international students are U.S. policy and U.S. culture.

“They see the headlines and they think that they’re no longer wanted in the United States,” said Lawrence Schovanec, president of Texas Tech University, whose foreign student enrollment declined by 2 percent this year. Sixty percent of schools with declining international enrollment, in fact, said that the U.S. social and political environment was a contributing factor, according to the IIE survey.

The most frequently cited issue, however, was “visa application process or visa issues/delays.” In the fall 2018 survey, 83 percent of schools named this as an issue, compared with 34 percent in fall 2016.

Problems began — but didn’t end — with Trump’s Muslim ban. Schools have seen students trapped abroad and have since advised some students not to go home before graduation lest they get stuck trying to come back. Said Bennington College President Mariko Silver, “We’ve seen individual students who have contacted us with the desire to come and have pulled out of the process.”

Boo-hoo, Trump supporters might say. What’s the big deal if some foreigners stay home?

Forget the feel-good explanations about how international students enrich the campus environment (which I don’t dispute). The students who come here also spend cold, hard cash: on tuition, travel, books, food, housing.

A lot of jobs depend on those students. American colleges and universities alone employed 3 million people in 2017. For context, that dwarfs the entire agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting sector.

And contrary to perceptions that foreign students take spots that belong to Americans, at many schools they’re enabling more American students to get a degree.

In the years after the financial crisis, as states slashed budgets for higher education, schools helped make up the shortfall by enrolling more out-of-state and international students. These students generally pay full tuition, and their higher fees are used to cross-subsidize lower, in-state tuition rates (and scholarships) of American classmates.

No wonder that the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign recently paid $424,000 to insure itself against a significant drop in tuition revenue from Chinese students.

More significant, a continued drop-off in international students could cause serious pain beyond academia.

Foreign students come here in part because they’re interested in staying after graduation and working here. They disproportionately study fields that U.S. employers demand and that U.S. students avoid. Foreign students now represent a majority of computer science and engineering graduate programs at U.S. universities, for instance.

That talent pipeline may be drying up.

Foreigners are experiencing more visa issues not only when they apply to study but also when they apply to stay and work. That might be one reason more than half of the decline in total enrollment last year was due to fewer students from India in computer science and engineering grad programs.

Our loss has become other countries’ gain. We’re still the top destination for foreign students, but Australia and Canada have each seen their international enrollments rise by double-digit percentages in the past year. They’re enticing students in word and in deed, with messages of welcome and expedited visas.

Trump likes to say that our allies are taking advantage of us on trade. In this case, would you really blame them?

Catherine Rampell

Catherine Rampell’s email address is crampell@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.