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Obama vs. Trump: International student edition

Former President Barack Obama and current President Donald Trump have employed vastly different immigration strategies. Obama supporters lauded him for passing the executive action, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (or DACA for short), that allowed individuals who were brought in to the US illegally as children to receive legal immigration status. President Trump, however, is famous for his “America first” policies on immigration. His administration has proposed travel bans and more restrictive policies on international entry to the U.S. These different approaches and policy changes have had varying effects on the world of international graduate and undergraduate education. It is too soon to tell if these Trump policies are related to the recent decline in new international enrollment in America. However, many people in the higher education community are starting to point a finger towards President Trump’s policies for these types of issues.

DACA was passed in 2012, but in 2014 Obama lifted age restrictions on the policy. This move allowed some international students studying in the U.S. to stay without fear of deportation after they graduate. Obama also extended the period of time an international student was allowed to remain in the country after graduation to 3 years for STEM majors and 12 months for many others. During the Obama administration, the United States saw new foreign enrollment grow every single year. The U.S. was truly a power in the field of international higher education.

When President Trump took over, the new foreign enrollment dropped 2.9% for undergraduates and 1.3% for graduate students between 2015/16 and 2016/17 (according to Open Doors Report, which said the new international enrollment dropped 3% total last year). It is too soon to tell if this decrease in new foreign enrollment is correlated to the Trump administration. With that said, many professors, deans and university presidents have started to point fingers at the current President. 

Earlier this year, according to POLITICO, “dozens of higher education groups” wrote in an amicus brief (a legal document for the Supreme Court to consider) against Trump’s travel ban, at the time a proposed ban on immigration from North Korea, Syria, Iran, Yemen, Libya, Somalia and Venezuela. The travel ban was recently upheld by the Supreme Court. The brief stated that the travel ban was a “clarion message of exclusion to millions” that would make it more difficult for universities to recruit international graduate students and faculty. It is important to note that Trump’s travel ban actually exempts graduate students. This means that international grad students can still apply to school in the U.S. but they may experience challenges once they get here (due to growing xenophobia in the States). That opinion is still a popular one, even with the affirmation of the ban. This sentiment can be applied to many different policies Trump has proposed. Also noteworthy is the fact that the travel ban will not affect students from the seven countries that are already in America. However, they are advised not to leave the U.S. as reentry could be challenging.

University of Southern California President Max Nikias spoke to CNBC recently on the subject of Trump’s policies, rhetoric, and the administration’s over-regulation of the education community. In the interview with CNBC, Nikias said, "The balance of international students — there is nothing wrong with it. Our university has been welcoming international students for last 140 years… Clearly from my perspective I'd like to diversify international student enrollment."

As the President of a large research institution like USC, Nikias is concerned that the anti-immigration rhetoric of President Trump will impact the international student enrollment and more. Nonetheless, it may be too soon to tell if Trump’s rhetoric and policies are actually causing fewer international students to apply to programs and universities in the U.S.

With all that said, it does appear to be harder for international students to stay in America under Trump in other ways as well. This relates to Trump’s threats to shorten the length of time somebody with an F1 (student) visa can stay and work in the U.S. after they graduate. The program is called Optimal Practical Training (OPT). As referenced earlier, STEM OPT was extended to a three-year stay under the Obama administration. Trump wants to shorten the stay of those legal students in the U.S. to 12 months post graduation. This kind of approach has lowered the number of international students that come to study in America for the first time in awhile. Countries such as Canada and Australia are reaping the benefits of Trump’s “America first” policies that could be posing a threat to the US’s top spot in the realm of international higher education.

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